How to interpret consumer behavior remains a definitive ideological question. Where some see duped consumers compelled to trod the so-called hedonic treadmill and chase after ever more frivolous novelties, others see empowered individuals, gratefully coloring their lives with newfound variety, discovering fresh ways to please and express themselves through the rich tapestry of goods.
If consumerism’s apologists are to be believed, customizing our identity with the niceties of industrial design is one of the paramount blessings our shopping-fixated culture bestows. As self-described “dynamist” Virginia Postrel argues in The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, our most utilitarian choices are now also informed by our aesthetic preferences, which makes them alleged opportunities for pleasure, because presumably nothing can be as pleasing as the narcissistic preening of our own identities (Harper Perennial, 2004).
The Substance of Style
How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, & Consciousness
Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff
Thanks to this “variety revolution”, once mundane products like toilet brushes, spatulas, and ice cube trays are now complemented by design so flamboyant that it’s unmistakable even to the untrained consumer’s eye, affording them an a-ha moment in which they can think to themselves, with some satisfaction, “Wow, that toilet brush is cool.” No longer a prole with a dirty toilet, one becomes a fledgling design critic and a curator of the tastefully appointed museum that used to be a one-bedroom apartment.
But there’s nothing particularly new or revolutionary about design-oriented consumerism. During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione espoused the influential ideal of sprezzatura, the paradoxical art of seeming like you pay no attention to the impression you’re making while simultaneously making it seem like you’ve thought of everything. This aristocratic impulse to carefully stylize and design one’s life eventually began to trickle down, evolving into what we know as fashion.
In the mid 18th-century, Lord Chesterfield would advise his son, “If you are not in fashion, you are nobody.” Then, according to historian Neil McKendrick, the prevalence of fashion spawned a full-blown late-18th-century consumer revolution, which transformed a tradition-bound people into novelty-seeking mavens (The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of 18th Century England, 1982). He cites excited proto-Postrels commenting approvingly on the sudden democratizing of such luxuries as mirrors, manufactured toys, and distinctive dishware.
Fueling this, though, as McKendrick argues, was the distinctly undemocratic impulse of social emulation, of trying to imitate one’s betters, and the “compulsive power of fashion”, to which commercial interests “pandered”. Alarmed moralists saw in this emulation the destruction of the “natural” social order; mercantilists believed the profligate importing of overseas luxuries would ruin the economy. But these objections were swept away, McKendrick suggests, by the English population’s particular susceptibility to the allure of fashion.
Because the infrastructure of a popular press and a transportation system were in place to spread ideas, and because income was sufficiently distributed throughout the different classes and the structure of society was just open enough to give license to dream about social mobility, it made sense to try and display one’s belongings as evidence of one’s aspirations and proof of one’s worthiness. As the possibility of emulative spending was recognized by nascent consumers and manufacturers alike, the economy centered around industrially designed goods began to rapidly proliferate. Entrepreneurs began to manufacture stuff—lots and lots of it. The consumer society, as we know it, was born.
Above all, the consumer revolution depended on the sudden availability of things, which allowed ordinary people to buy ready-made objects that once were inherited or self-produced. The ability to pick and choose among branded novelties to a previously unimagined degree gave birth to the peculiarly modern pleasure of shopping, in which purchasing power supplies immediate satisfaction to the impulse to create that once people had to actually make things to fulfill. (Those yearning to return to that state of affairs might consider taking the buy handmade pledge.)
This mountain of stuff is what Rich Gold, an eclectic avant-garde performance artist cum industrial designer cum computer scientist, refers to as “the Plenitude” in his whimsical, PowerPoint presentation of a book by the same name (The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff, MIT Press, 2007). At first, Gold’s slim volume seems like the typical celebration of innovation geared for the management crowd, with a series of bullet-pointed tips on how to foster creativity in a corporate environment. And he certainly writes for the attention-challenged business-book reader, making sure to present information in lists, to repeat it several times, and to couple it with illustrations that allow a reader to skip the text itself, if need be. But if one actually bothers to read it, it quickly becomes clear that Gold is far more subversive than it at first appears, making some striking points about the origins of the cult of design and how it manages to reproduce itself.
A veteran of several art collectives himself, Gold notes his having been influenced by DeBord and the Situationists, but clearly he has read his Baudrillard, as well. Gold’s plenitude concept owes a great deal to Baudrillard’s concept of “the system of objects”, an all-embracing network of goods through which we come to know ourselves and our position within society. “Material goods are not the objects of consumption,” he claims. Instead, “consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages presently constituted in a more or less coherent discourse. Consumption, insofar as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs” (The System of Objects, Verso, 1996). Gold points to the shirt as an example: whereas before the consumer society existed, you would have a shirt specifically made for you by the local shirtmaker and would care deeply about it, as it may be the only one you would have owned. Now we take our shirts for granted, and they signify not ourselves but our allegiance to the Plenitude.
As a system, the Plenitude bears with its own ideology, which Gold is careful to elaborate delicately, in terms that won’t alienate the business mind. Most significant of these is the notion of copyright. As Gold points out, this makes creativity and distinctive design mandatory. Under an illustration of Mickey Mouse ears, he inscribes this slogan, “We must make new things by law. It’s illegal to tell the same story again.” Then he elaborates: “Variation is built into the legal system of the culture and lies at the heart of the Plenitude. At this point it’s a reflex for us to seek out the new, the different, the creative, the innovative. That’s what we like and that’s what we buy.”
We are institutionally trapped in the prison-house of design. Not only that, but between the lines of this statement, though, is the implication that our predilection for novelty has been induced in us, a point reinforced by Gold’s calling the toy store the “most frightening place in the mall” because its purpose is “to incorporate our young into the Plenitude”.
Just as everything manufactured must manifest some essential “creative” difference, the same logic comes to apply when we attempt to produce our own identities, using the consumer goods our culture supplies as the only viable tools for the job. Ignoring the possibilities of design inherent in things becomes tantamount to neglecting to develop our own self-worth.
Gold credits the imperative to design with having “created most of the bounty around us”, and regards design as a product’s way of saying “I care about you”. And he extends the anthropomorphizing to argue the good design occurs when “engineers open themselves up and let the stuff around them rant on about what it wants to be”. In other words, rather than design serving us, we become so enmeshed in the network of things and so reliant on the symbolic language of goods that we end up entirely alienated from the material culture we have created and believe ourselves to exist to serve it, to further its ends. “Stuff desires to be better stuff,” he proclaims, humbly submitting himself to be the doll whisperer.
Once we regard industrial design as an autonomous function of goods themselves, nothing exists to check it and the constrictive code of conspicuous consumerism it represents from colonizing even more of our everyday lives. If the design cult had its way, we wouldn’t even be able to carry a coffee mug without wondering if it’s cool enough to be seen walking down the street with it in hand. Nothing is to be free of the anxiety that comes with wondering whether someone will mutter “Cool” when they see it.
When design and customization options are associated with a particular good, you can no longer avail yourself of the usefulness of a thing without venturing a bit of your identity at the same time. It’s akin to what I’ve always imagined living in the East Village or Williamsburg, New York hipster neighborhoods, would be like, where you can’t go out to do your laundry or go to the grocery store without feeling the pressure to look cool. The tyranny of design makes it so you can’t simply own a functional car that gets you places; because of the rich associations marketers have imbued in autos, every aspect of your vehicle says something to the world about the personality you wish to project.
You can’t simply take advantage of the usefulness of a cell phone without opening up a Pandora’s box of personalization options; not only must you be worrying about which phone to get, you need to consider what color it should be, which picture to use as a background, what ringtone to have it play, what banner slogan to have it display. There’s no escaping the conundrum. As Baudrillard notes, “The code is totalitarian; no one escapes it: our individual flights do not negate the fact that each day we participate in its collective elaboration.” Or as another philosopher put it (okay, Rush drummer Neil Peart), “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
So despite the plethora of options it affords us, modern design isn’t about improving our quality of life; its purpose is to create differentiation that allows retailers who harness it, like Target, to secure a competitive advantage and make concrete profit out of the intangible insecurities of consumers like us, who are without any alternatives for buoying their self-esteem—the ubiquity of design makes any gesture for recognition we might make ultimately reducible to a pose, a scheme, a design. Social symbolism may very well be a zero-sum game, and inescapable industrial design may have sapped the symbolic potency out of what non-commercial aspects of culture remain.
We’re left with no viable way to communicate any of our intentions without tacitly assenting to the tyranny of design, without seeming to confess that industrial designers have already found a material way of saying what we mean better than we can say ourselves. So while we are taught to revel in creativity, all we can express is novelty; no matter what we attempt, the message ends up, “Look at me, I’m original.” And all the while Gold’s Plenttude becomes more mystifyingly diverse and unfathomable, as rich and complex as we humans used to be.
The early consumer society was haunted by this, too: In 1825, pamphleteer William Cobbett was complaining about the “constant anxiety to make a show” that went along with the dissemination of manufactured goods. “What a mass of materials for producing that general and dreadful convulsion that must, first or last, come and blow this funding and jobbing and enslaving and starving system to atoms!” (from Rural Rides, 1830 ).
But that dreadful convulsion has not come; instead we have adapted entirely to the system, even as it has eradicated the possibility of any genuine gestures of individuality. Gold notes that “the Plenitude’s ‘diversity’ is overwhelming and it drowns out beauty, drowns out anybody trying to say anything.” We are consigned to communicating through design, but it’s an impoverished language that can only say one thing: “That’s cool.” Design ceases to serve our needs, and the superficial qualities of useful things end up cannibalizing their functionality. The palpability of the design interferes, distracts from the activity an item is supposed to be helping you do. The activity becomes subordinate to the tools. You become the tool.