The Cultural Contradictions of Convenience
Modern commercial life can make such a bizarre carnival of reality. I don’t mean this in a totally derogatory way. Last month, for example, I had a bike stolen from my porch and, within 30 minutes of making the discovery that some scofflaw had burglarized my wheels, I had, thanks to Craigslist, a new (old) bike. When I read and come across a book reference that sounds interesting, I can have it on my i-thing within 45 seconds. I recently made a grocery list that included nutritional yeast, dulse, a thai pepper, toasted but unsalted cashews, almond milk, and a can of Spam. I was able to hop on my new (old) bike and, within 40 minutes, have in my politically correct shopping bag every single one of these items. Minus the Spam. I was just kidding about the Spam.
Modern commercial life is about convenience. It’s about scratching every little itch quickly and, preferably, with a consumer experience enhanced by tasteful lighting and beautiful people (I went to Whole Foods). The downside of this convenience, though, is that it reinforces our basest and most insidious acquisitive tendencies. Books, bikes, and a really good Indian meal aren’t exactly what I have in mind here, but something far more general. The scratch-my-itch culture we reinforce on a daily basis drives home the fundamental axiom that, as disposable-income-blessed humans zooming through modern life, we’re entitled to have what we want, can (sort of) afford, and deserve. This might all sound lovely. But my fear is that it reflects a pervasive mentality that—reified and democratized if not created by capitalism—informs the perception of meaningful change while, in fact, inhibiting anything of the sort.
Before delving into a concrete example of this ironic (and destructive) phenomenon, allow me to clarify what I mean by change. Needless to say, my mindset is largely centered on veganism as a positive manifestation of cultural change. But one could identify many other manifestations of a tectonic shift in the larger cultural mindset. The point is this: change as I understand the term demands a basic and collective reorientation in thought about our place in what Murray Bookchin calls “the normal, balanced, and manageable rhythms of human life [in] an environment that meets our requirements as individuals and biological beings.” In other words, a change in mentality about the very substructure and biology of existence, not to mention a change in what a “need” really is. When that creaky utopian wheel in my own mind spins, this change in mentality would result in a cohesive society in which vegan people living in small houses laid around a lot reading books and talking about them rather than running around like crazy-people either trying to invent shit* or working in the employ of somebody who’s trying to invent shit. But that’s just me.
Now to the concrete example, the example that initiated this line of thought to begin with. I was recently running with a friend who’s a professor in a business school. We were talking about innovation and he told me about a Boston-based research project that led to a massive uptick in morning milkshake sales. (I’m guessing he was talking about Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s insane, but if you’ve been to Boston you’ll know what I’m talking about. It can be 13 below and Bostonians will huddle in a line that stretches to the next block to procure various versions of Dunkin’ Donuts happiness, many of them cold.) Anyway, my friend explained that milkshake sales went up not because savvy marketers had determined that humans were just dying to slurp another frothy drink, but because they were flat-out bored. Modern life had lulled them into such a coma of consciousness that, with the average Bostonian commute being an hour, the huddled proletariat decided it needed a distraction for a good portion of that time. The milkshake, being thick and typically enjoyed in short, hard-earned sucks, fit the bill. Ka-boom and ka-ching. Milkshake sales skyrocketed.
My friend’s story hit me like news of the armageddon: the milkshake makers have got us by the hypothalamuses! And that’s an uncomfortable position to be in. Because when meaningful change becomes a new milkshake at Dunkin’ Donuts to keep us from pondering our inner misery, the prospect of substructural cultural change resulting in a book-reading, vegan-eating, small-is-beautiful thinking collective is about as likely as me buying a can of Spam.
*Eating Plants, a family-oriented venture, generally avoids the use of profanity but, in this instance, I’m making a rare exception. It just seemed to be the perfect word choice. Let it not be taken as anything but an anomaly.