Rebels Without The Cause We Think: Part 1
First of all, if you haven't had a chance to read the excellent article at This Magazine, check it out here. It's written more toward consumers and advertisers than those making the products, so we'll try to shed some light on the design opportunities for interacting with this social effect.
Basically, the thesis is this: There is a difference between being anti-consumption or anti-consumerism and being a rebel against what Heath and Potter call "Mass Society. By way of example, lets look at Punk Rockers. Notoriously anti-establishment, many punks would claim to be the first group to really go totally anti-consumer. In reality, however, there is a remarkable amount of merchandise that is necessary to sustain the punk habit (there are over 700,000 hits for the Google search " 'Punk Rock' store "). Specially made boots, shirts, jackets, often, rockers even remove parts of multiple garments and pin them to a jacket or bag in a effort to "punkify" the piece. This is done in an effort to undermine capitalist society which is perceived as oppressive. The end result, the This Magazine. article claims, is that rather than subvert capitalism, the punk group merely creates another sub-economy of it's own goods.
Don't get us wrong, we don't mean to pick on punks (although, not many other groups have been commandeered by the popples). The same thing has happened over and over again. The hippies in the 60's who's original ideology of free love was changed by the marketplace into the high-price, high-image love of the 70's disco era. Then, even when they thought they grew out of it, Volkswagen tapped them again. Grateful Dead fans, who's original proposition of bumming around the country to see a new concert gave way to one of the biggest unlicensed merchandise markets for a music group. The classic intellectualist coffee shop novelist had his brand of individuality commandeered by Starbucks et. all. Even the graffiti/tag Artist movement, originally begun as an affront to organized art and the art-school-gallery-sellout route has now spawned a gallery scene of its own, complete with celebrities and limited edition artwork. And hey, even if you just want to feel like a socially disadvantaged rebel, why not buy a set of pre-cut graffiti stencils?
So what's the rub? So we aren't really being anti-capitalism -- so what? In fact, it seems that our rebel tendencies are having exactly the opposite effect we wanted. The This Magazine Article indicates that the introduction of the "Critique of Mass Society" was introduced during the 1950's, at least in the United States, and probably in the rest of the world shortly after. But, as you can see from this chart of growth of world trade of items since 1950, trade in manufactures has increased steadily the entire time (The map's vertical is log of trade, so the graph shows growth).
This chart is available at The WTO homepage. Despite the efforts of beat poets, hippies, punks, goths, coffee drinkers, yuppies, and graffiti artists, we are buying stuff faster than ever. And it's not just because of the population increase either -- since people eat a relatively constant amount of food (within reason) the growth of the agricultural products line is probably a fair representation of the rate of growth due to population. The manufactures line is almost always increasing twice as fast as agriculture.
This increase is probably due to a few things. First of all, as the This article pointed out, once you base the value of your products on how few other people have them, you are obliged to update your products as they are adopted by a majority of your chosen group. This causes a high product turnover rate, and therefore, a need for lower-cost products in order to sustain the trend. Once lower cost products become more available, it's easier for more people to participate in the trend, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
Similarly, even if you are not a member of that particular group, but are interested in purchasing an item which the group's influence has created, the pressure to make the item cost less will necessarily lower the durability and quality of the item, and even the non-group user will have to replace the item sooner than they would have had to before. So consumption by non-group members goes up as well.
Now, since low priced items are desired by these groups (which by now are all the "cool" groups, since rebel qualities are held to be pretty cool) the retailers have no choice to de-emphasize quality of goods in favor of low prices (Designers get down on Target and Walmart and Bestbuy a lot, and rightly so, but they're responding to a market which is practically screaming for cheaper and cheaper goods)
Wow. So after all that, what hope is there for us designers? Are we doomed to forever make cheaper and cheaper crappy stuff? Is there any hope for real value, instead of low value in design? And what about the environmental and social angles?
Can we make a difference in this tangle?
Yes. We definitely can. This was all set in motion by a well-placed idea and a machine of economic production to make it happen. We have that same opportunity now. And designers are the ones at the helm of the "Good Ship Production". This Magazine put the onus on advertisers and politicians to re-arrange to system from the top, but we can do just as much from within.
Tune in tomorrow for part two. In which we confront the real costs of this way of production, both to design as a profession, and to our world, social and environmental. And in which we outline some opportunities for designers to change both the products, and the social structures that are at the heart of the problem.
And until then, if you agree, disagree, or just want to be heard, let us know (idfuel(at)gmail.com) and we'll see that comments get put up.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team