Many years ago, T.M., a grad school colleague of mine introduced me to the term 'American consumer-whore-ism'. His exact words were, "This is America, man! Land of the consumer whores". As I understood he meant materialism which is a universal, but it is at its worst (or at its best) in America. And materialism is always bad, right? In almost every urban society from New York to Mumbai, it's hard to get away from consumptive activities, and the trend is towards even more conspicuous consumption. The hypocrisy of tree-huggers (myself included) is obvious -- I punch in the text to this blog on my MacBook. We consume more gadgets and technology every year. James Surowiecki's column in New Yorker offered a different perspective on consumerism: it stimulates innovation. Despite other many other faults American consumer whore-ism is somewhat responsible for innovation and the resulting increases in productivity.
From the New Yorker, May 16th Innovative Consumption by James Surowiecki
From a business perspective, the willingness of consumers to take risks means that new technologies can see profit faster here than they can elsewhere. That encourages inventors to invent, and investors to pour money into startups. (It’s no coincidence that the modern venture-capital industry got its start here.) And the speed with which successful products are taken up also allows companies to benefit from economies of scale sooner, bringing prices down and making it easier to reach even more customers. But it isn’t just a matter of speed. Venturesome consumers also provide companies with feedback that helps improve products, and often even repurpose them, in ways their inventors hadn’t imagined. In the process, the value of the innovations themselves increases. In that sense, our culture of innovation depends on consumers as much as on entrepreneurs
The thin line between consuming to spur innovation and being a consumer whore seems to be a fine one. But what is it? I need to think about this more.
Aside: The May 16th issue of the New Yorker is by far the best issue of the year. Among interesting topics it talks about Pepsi rebranding as a nutrition company, Pakistan and it's hobgoblin enemy India and its masterful manipulation of American aid, and Gladwell on XEROX's PARC. Great fiction by Michael Ondaatje. This also tells you I am little behind in my New Yorker reading.