Wednesday, November 8, 2017

How Making Consumers Happy Got Us Here

If you’ve never seen Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 TED Talk: “Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce,” please take a moment to check it out:

In the talk, Gladwell focuses on the work of “someone who, I think, has done as much to make Americans happy, as perhaps anyone over the last 20 years, a man who is a great personal hero of mine, someone by the name of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce.”

Gladwell goes on to describe Moskowitz’s key insight in coming up with chunky pasta sauce for Prego, which is that there is no single sauce that is perfect for everyone, but there is a perfect sauce for each individual consumer. As the saying goes: “The customer is always right.” Thus, the explosion from just Prego vs Ragu to different varies of Prego and Ragu to the cornucopia of choices we have for pasta sauce today.

But as the sauce went, so went everything else. We no longer have to suffer through the primitive days of ABC’s Wide World of Sports or just one cable sports channel. There’s ESPN 2 (and 3 and Classic), FS1, NBCSN, CBSSN, even channels devoted to motorsports or golf. Long gone are the days of everyone tuning in to Walter Cronkite for the day's news. Instead, everyone can find the talking head who agrees most with their personal views and never have to be inconvenienced by a dissenting view.

Online, we no longer have to be exposed to the same reality or set of facts. Facebook, YouTube, Google News, et al. make it so we don’t even have to go out of our way to search out those with similar views; these behemoths feed us stuff based on all the data they have gathered from tracking our online behavior. Of course, they’re doing this to make us happy, but what price are we paying for this sort of happiness?

Which brings us, inevitably, to the present political situation. I think it’s obvious that our current president would not be in office if not for this drive to feed consumers only what they want to see, hear, and experience. Much has been made about how the Russians took advantage of people’s news feeds to try to drive Americans further apart. However, even without foreign interference, I believe that modern America’s brand of consumerism is damaging to all Americans, young and old, left and right. It tells the consumer, “only you and what you want matters.” This kind of implicit message inevitably leads to inflated egos all around, self-selection into smaller and smaller interest groups, and less of a willingness to see things from another perspective. Not surprisingly, frustration, anger, and inability to compromise are the result when people who are used to shaping their own reality are confronted by realities determined by others with different beliefs, such as when a black president gets elected or a controversial speaker gets invited to speak at a college campus.

Is fixing our system (which I believe involves fixing our culture) even possible at this point? Once the Pandora’s Box of unlimited choice for the consumer has been opened, is there any going back to the spirit of “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”? In my less hopeful moments, I think that it would take some sort of unimaginable catastrophe—like the Great Depression bringing an end to the Roaring 20’s—to drive people to put sufficient effort into overcoming the centrifugal forces that are splitting us apart. Yet, as Tom Hanks said, “If you’re concerned about what’s going on today, read history and figure out what to do because it’s all right there.” I'm not sure if he was thinking about a specific historical era, but what came to my mind was what happened during the Renaissance Papacy, when the Popes became so focused on worldly riches, pleasure, and power that they lost their religious legitimacy, leading directly to the Protestant Reformation.

From the Wikipedia entry:
The popes of this period used the papal military not only to enrich themselves and their families, but also to enforce and expand upon the longstanding territorial and property claims of the papacy as an institution. […] With ambitious expenditures on war and construction projects, popes turned to new sources of revenue from the sale of indulgences and of bureaucratic and ecclesiastical offices. […] The popes of this period became absolute monarchs, but unlike their European peers, they were not hereditary, so they could only promote their family interests through nepotism.
That period of the papacy lasted roughly a century before the Reformation forced Catholicism to reform itself. Yes, there were bloody religious wars as a result of the split in Western Christianity, and peace between Catholics and Protestants took centuries to achieve in some places. And some pundits argue that the Reformation created as many horrors as it addressed. But the overall (admittedly simple) lesson I get from this history is that there are many potential Martin Luthers out there, waiting to change the world, even if inadvertently. I just hope we don’t have to wait a hundred years for that to happen.