Precious moments

by Rob Horning

18 June 2008


I’ve been reading Swedish economist Staffan Linder’s The Harried Leisure Class, which examines the impact of time constraints on consumption. Linder argues that the time it takes to consume and maintain the goods a larger income allows us to acquire must be taken into account when evaluating our decisions regarding whether to save or spend, whether to work more or seek more leisure. These sorts of concerns have returned to prominence recently, but under a new name—such is our customary passivity and our habit of pathologizing and psychologizing social problems with regard to consumption that the problem of time scarcity has been reintroduced as the “attention economy,” with many of us suffering from an “attention deficit.”

Linder foresaw this turn of events, recognizing that we would struggle to find time to make use of all the goods we acquire, and that we would be easily seduced into believing that we could make fertile exchanges between productive work time and consumption time in the search for more marginal utility from the expenditure of our precious moments. In other words, if we can increase our income and buy more things, we would take our utility that way and figure we’d actually consume the stuff later, when presumably we’d have more time to do so and wouldn’t have as much capability to earn. Hence working and shopping replaces the actual enjoyment of leisure. Collecting books replaces the pleasure of reading them, and so on. “One may possibly buy more of everything, but one cannot conceivably do more of everything…. The purchase of more expensive golf clubs is taken as an indication that golfers are devoting themselves more to their sport.” I suddenly understand my absurd music collection in a new light.

We are too deprived of time to do any better—we think that working and earning the money to buy a bunch of books is better quantitatively than working less, buying one book and reading it carefully. And because conserving time is of the essence, it makes more sense to buy more things thoughtlessly and discard the rubbish than to consider every purchase carefully—we have a surfeit of goods and money, what we lack is time. That is why the 99-cent store is such a suitable emblem of our culture—an overwhelming avalanche of cheap goods that we can even begin to process the true worth of.

As Linder explains it,

The yield on time spent in acquiring information on different decisions would gradually deteriorate in relation to the yield on time spent in production. This must lead to a reallocation of time. The time used to acquire information must be reduced per decision. One has to concentrate on acquiring information only of such value that the yield on time spent for this purpose will be as high as in the production of goods. It pays to make a larger number of mistakes in expenditure, instead of preparing all decisions very carefully—and thus having correspondingly less time to acquire income. As the scarcity of time increases, we can expect a decline in the quality of decisions.

This in turn reinforces the appeal of the throwaway society, and the idea that the moment of purchase is where the pleasure is achieved, not the moment of use. The moment of use is where the inevitable disappointment comes when we realize we just acquired more crap. Linder speculates that planned obsolescence can be better understood as the consumer’s preference, since it means the product will ultimately make fewer time and maintenance demands on the consumer.

Similarly, advertising is appealing to us because it limits the time we spend in decision making, regardless of whether it steers toward a wise one. “People can be made the victims of persuasion not because they are irrational but because they are rational. Since they are rational, they are not prepared to spend all their time gathering information on what are the best things to buy”—service journalism notwithstanding. “The increase in the volume of advertising can hardly be attributed to sales departments having become increasingly malevolent or the customers increasingly irrational.” Instead, we’d rather save time and risk being mislead by advertising then research all our purchasing decisions—the number of which are continually increasing, as we substitute acquisition for usage of goods. I have tended to see the appeal of advertising as the vicarious enjoyment it enables—it helps us frame the fantasies that makes goods seem useful to us, particular in shaping the identity and lifestyle we want to project. But this same inducement to vicarious consumption is compelling in relation to our own goods even after we own them—ads help save us time by doing the consuming and enjoying of the goods for them. We can just buy them and know through the ads that we could in theory enjoy them, probably sometime down the road (that will never come). Linder argues that “one actually wants to be influenced by advertising to get an instant feeling that one has a perfectly good reason to buy this or that commodity, the true properties of which one knows dismally little about.” If that is the case, then we are consuming decisiveness as an end in itself, as the pleasurable commodity that ads are able to supply. As usual, the item itself around which the decision making is staged is superfluous, a souvenir of the pleasure of choosing.

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