The Usefulness Trap

In a consumer economy, the customer is king. How does he know this? Because there are so many opportunities for him to take advantage of retailers, who, to prove their fealty to consumers, typically promise complete satisfaction without even specifying the criteria by which satisfaction can be judged. Retailers need us to believe they are capable of satisfying our every whim, so any crazy notion can serve as grounds for a refund. Did your candy bar lack a certain heft to its nougat? Send the wrapper in to the manufacturer and get another one. Did your barbecue briquettes fail to give off an aroma that was sufficiently evocative of your youth in the Hamptons? Demand a refund from Kingsford.

Because the rituals of shopping are routinely steeped in fantasy and hyperbole, because our advertorial culture routinely suggests absurd conclusions about the person we could become by driving certain cars, using the latest electronic gadgets, or perfuming ourselves with branded scents, the ubiquitous unqualified pledge of customer fulfillment seems natural and unremarkable, entirely at home in such a rhetorical environment. And because we are all now in the habit of suspending disbelief without a moment’s reflection to consume and enjoy these ridiculous but flattering assurances (those guys at the muffler shop would really do anything to make me happy), companies can count on our never expecting those assurances to be literally true.

Retailers know we won’t hold them to their word. If we really demanded what we were off-handedly promised, we would in the process admit publicly that we didn’t understand that all these promises were merely part of the game we play collectively to make the otherwise humdrum activity of fulfilling our needs become fun. We would reveal ourselves as stupid and slow. We would fail to go with the flow and would thus subject ourselves to stigmatization. We’d be like that stubborn stickler for detail who ruins everything for everyone, who holds up the line, who spoils the ending, who destroys the magician’s trick or shatters illusions by questioning inconsistencies. We would become that humorless, uptight guy who returns his breakfast in Fast Times at Ridgemont High because it was “not the best breakfast I ever had.” After the customer hassles counter clerk Judge Reinhold, we sympathize with Reinhold completely when he offers to “kick 100 percent” of the guy’s ass.

Not only is it not cool to take ads and guarantees at face value, but it would be mentally taxing as well to make the attempt. Because the use value falls so short of the hype value of commodities, actual ownership and use of a thing is disappointing if not disillusioning. Were we to refuse to suspend our disbelief regarding shopping myths, we would have to reject the fantasies offered by ads and lifestyle entertainments and invent our own. We would have to derive all our enjoyment from our own brains and the commodities themselves, isolated from the pageantry that constructs their social meanings. Retailers and manufacturers know we don’t have the energy or the imagination for that.

I certainly don’t. I can’t come up with the means to articulate why every single product I buy ultimately fails to satisfy me totally, in every possible way imaginable. I try to ignore the hype and concentrate instead on whatever limited usefulness I am able to derive from things and try to get the most use out of the things I buy. I try not to blame the commodities themselves for what the consumer society has hyped them to be. In other words, I try to will myself to behave as economists expect me to, rationally choosing what gives me “the most for my money” and buying the things I “truly need” first. I try to focus on the intrinsic value of things. This makes me a sucker.

I know this because I’ve played the other side of the fence. When I was a student, I used to spend a lot of time going to thrift stores and library sales looking for used books. Not books I wanted personally, mind you, just books I could imagine someone else wanting. I certainly didn’t need any more books; I had the university library at my disposal, thanks to that graduate-student dispensation that basically allowed me to check out books indefinitely. (In fact, I still might have Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison checked out, even though I left school five years ago.)

While I did acquire a bunch of books as a proxy for actually reading them, employing that well-worn collector’s strategy of substituting possession for mastery, the vast majority of books I bought from thrift stores were for the strict purpose of reselling them to Bookman’s, an Arizona bookstore chain. This was before widespread Internet usage, before eBay and Amazon marketplace destroyed the used-book market for individual sellers (or freelance book scouts, as I sometimes would call myself in my mind, a failed attempt to dignify what I was doing).

Most of the books I resold back then could now be had for a penny plus shipping from some mass bookseller on Amazon. But back then, I could buy a few boxes of books for maybe $10 (greatly aided by the “$3 off anything” coupon that the Southwest thrift-store chain Savers put in the University of Arizona schedule of classes for a few years running) and sell them for $50. Not a bad rate of return, if the absurd amount of time is ignored — and perhaps it should be, since I wasn’t really doing it for the money but to pass time and participate in our culture’s favorite competitive activity: profit-making for the sheer sake of it. Rather than read books, I found it more diverting to trade them.

James Surowiecki’s New Yorker column about the market for college textbooks (“Class Action”, 7 November 2005) reiterates this. Professors assign books because they think they are the most useful to their students (unless they assign ones they themselves wrote, in which case the motives become considerably more clouded) with no regard for price. This invites the publishing consortium that essentially controls the market segment to set prices as high as they can. Students respond by creating a vital used-books market, in which lucrative premiums are paid to those students willing to sell back their texts. The flood of used books prompts publishers to raise their prices, which increases their resale value, resulting in no net change in cost for student resellers while intensifying the cyclical price escalation. But as Surowiecki points out, “The real losers in this game are those who buy textbooks and hold on to them: graduate students, bookworms, and lazy people.” Leaving aside the lazy, those who suffer are those who actually care about the material inside the book, those invested in the lasting usefulness of the object they’ve purchased, those who cling to the significance of owning something.

At the point in capitalism’s development when staple goods have all been branded and all experience has been reified into marketable commodities, use value becomes nothing more than a way to bilk chumps who haven’t caught on to the real significance of objects — the fact that the only way to “use” objects is to exchange them in order to make money. All the other uses are mystifications, beside the point. The point of that copy of Love in the Time of Cholera or A Thousand Acres or The Poisonwood Bible is not that it can be enjoyed when read but that it can be sold. And if it’s sold for more than you paid for it, then you’ve earned legitimate enjoyment, at least according to the values our society trumpets and reinforces at just about every level and through just about every institution.

Baudrillard, in For the Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (Telos Press, 1981) goes so far as to say all needs are fictitious, that that utility itself is a clever ruse to trap us in a phony, vainglorious sense of our allegedly unique individuality while voluntarily reducing ourselves to a preordained standard variable in a rationalized economic system. Baudrillard proposes we reject utility altogether and return to a potlatch economy based on a “purified” kind of exchange modeled on gift-giving. But it may be that we are too attached to the blandishments of having an individualized self for such a radical move. Instead, we accept the ameliorative intercession that playing the economic game of tallying exchange values and keeping score with money.

Eventually eBay put an end to my playing at small-time personal-scale capitalism, but only because it democratized the experience beyond just those people like me who had way too much time on their hands. Now everyone can look at their belongings as exchangeable objects, first and foremost. Once upon a time, one combed the aisles of thrift stores looking to indulge some personal peculiarity, to escape the mainstream pursuit of novelty and discover some potential lost self in the detritus of the past (assuming, of course, that one wasn’t consigned there by financial straits). It was to identify with the rejected, the refuse, the stuff deemed no longer fit for social consumption. It was to move to the margins of society, to pursue the polar opposite of dominant mainstream values. Now the thrift store is no such refuge. Its idiosyncrasies have disappeared Routinely patrolled and picked clean by eBay profiteers, the thrift store is just another arena for profit making, another place to play the sport of capitalism.

According to a Wall Street Journal trend piece, “In a Dizzying World, One Way to Keep Up: Renting Possessions” (17 October 2005), more and more Americans take eBay’s new slogan “Buy it, love it, sell it” to heart and rent status goods rather than purchase them. Allegedly, these savvy new consumers “care less about whether things are truly theirs and more about whether they can get the latest and best.” They search for eBay bargains, show off their victories, then resell the goods for profit. If eBay is efficient in providing convenient consumption, it’s just as effective at allowing one to consume capitalism itself as a product. It gives one the thrill of buying and selling for profit as often as possible, experiencing capitalism as a game in which one is a real player rather than a pawn. In light of such opportunities, the irrationality of worrying about usefulness or long-term ownership becomes more and more obvious. We see that we sell ourselves short by being hung up on owning something specific, even if those sorts of objects once formed the core of our sense of self.

It may be that we want to want things more than we want to have things because our primary sense of ourselves as consumers — our most highly recognized and approved social role — and without reasons to continually keep us in the process of shopping, we lose our place in society. So actually having things and using them is less significant than participating in the social drama of shopping. Desire is more important than fulfillment, so we are content to perform charades of acquisition — scams and whatnot — because these games enact dramas of desire being fulfilled without our having to confront the emptiness of actual acquisition. We don’t have to face the failure of commodities to fulfill what they promise.

On the surface, this can seem a positive development. Rather than allowing the alleged usefulness of a good to remain dormant on a collector’s shelf, these opportunities to seize profits on turning over our belongings urge us to think of the precise moments where we actually make use of something, whether that be the pleasure of showing off a handbag you’ve rented or the moment you are watching that Lost DVD. The Internet is an efficient way to turn goods (DVDs and games and whatnot) into experiences purchased rather than products. You buy something to do for a specific time rather than something to own for life. In this way, the Internet becomes a vast circulation library for all sorts of goods. Not only does this militate against having things one doesn’t use, but it explodes the notion that ownership is a kind of experiential pleasure all its own and undermines the fetishization of private property.

And using eBay to essentially rent consumer goods means one never has to own one’s shopping mistakes, which removes some of the productive labor out of consumption. You never have to work at integrating something you’ve bought into your life if it doesn’t immediately fit, and you need not develop any consumer-based identities very deeply. This is liberating on the one hand, potentially freeing one from an identity rooted in shopping. But more likely it means simply that one has lost the integrative capacity altogether. Behind one’s surface of rented status items is nothing but an empty shell, a mannequin on which culture advertises its latest goodies.

What something costs is one of the few motives we have for consuming something intensively rather than shallowly. It’s what made me listen to the same Zeppelin 8-track over and over as a kid; I couldn’t afford to go out and get another one, and there was no Internet on which people were willing to rent me music (or give it to me for free). And it’s what made me listen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ridiculous Welcome to the Pleasuredome far more times than it deserved. The $12.99 I spent on it made me want to milk out as much enjoyment as possible out of that record. (Alas, no blood could be squeezed from that stone.) The pursuit of use value may consistently disappoint, but it does commit us to an active process of discovery, a steady refinement of our understanding of what truly satisfies us. But if Baudrillard is right, and those “real” needs are just ideological fictions, we’ll be committed to forever hunting ghosts, chasing the dreams of the system that we’ve mistaken for our true selves.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.