Thursday, March 08, 2007

A sense of control....

OK, this is the big thesis post about why we buy. I originally was going to create the grand taxonomy of reasons why we buy (I was trained as a biologist, and biologists are all about taxonomies, we like order, structure, gooey slimy stuff that crawls, mostly so we can put it into the gooey slimy part of the family tree). I'll explore some of the reasons that we buy, but in thinking about this more and more yesterday I came up onto an insight that I think is worth sharing.

Modern consumerism is a natural outgrowth of industrial society, and the transformation of autonomy. In the past, you basically spent your time providing for your needs. If you could do it quickly, you spent a lot of time with your family, or just hanging around. But basically your real needs and nature dictated your schedule.

With industrialization, our rhythms transformed to that of "the Man" now you worked according to an industrial schedule, and all your needs required you to work to get money, to meet those needs. We disintermediated our life needs. Now, lets say you made a big score, you'd still need to show up to work since getting a job is a pain and incurs a lot of cost. But I also believe this loss of control, contributes to shopping. Hear me out....

A friend of mine once lost her job, wrong time, wrong place and it was happening to every company kind of thing. Even if it isn't your fault, it still sucks. She mentioned to me that she was going to indulge in some retail therapy, and I realize that I did the same (though for different items). As I deal with my incredibly mind numbing job that is destroying my IQ daily (my blog posts may become more incoherent --- more you ask, they're there you say to yourself). I realize that most of my unhappiness with employment comes from lack of control. In my job it's seeing crappy products get out of the door, or bad decisions that will hurt later and not being able to change it.

So even though we are less likely to freeze, starve, be eating by tigers, we feel we have less control over our lives. Except when we shop, and the credit card industry has a lot to do with that. Think about the times you were in college and you had no money, you felt pretty helpless. But when you have credit card, you can feel powerful and in control.

One of the most powerful things about shopping is that at the point of sale you are in control. There are few things in life where you get to make a decision and in shopping you get to make the decision. You are in control over the poor sales person. That momentary sense of power, I think is an incredibly powerful narcotic. Shopping gives one the illusion of choice and control, and in a life where increasingly we feel we have less, explains a lot of the appeal of shopping. The irony is short term control can mean long term out of control if debt is involved.

As our lives feel more obligated, shopping is a place where we feel we have control, we can research, we can play alternatives off of each other, we can deny, we can choose. The urge to buy may be a manifestation for some control of our lives. It explains a lot of why we buy worthless things. Most of the people who are most in debt, are those whose jobs give them the least amount of control, it's the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Most of the people at the top, lead incredibly uncluttered lives when you look at the pictures of their homes in those expensive magazines. (like where do they store their magazines, I have them all over my coffee table).

That's my big epiphanie, we often don't buy for the stuff or experience we get from buying, we buy for the feeling we get in the act of buying.

I'll examine some of the (self-)rationalizations for why we buy in the next few postings. The Car(bon) free lifestyle takes great courage and strength, because you have to feel in control somewhere, otherwise you will see control elsewhere (in buying)


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