Thursday, July 14, 2005

Manufacturing laziness

When new commodities purport to open up new realms of convenience for consumers, the tendency is to assume that consumers have grown more and more lazy, and industry has simply responded to the demand for laziness by flooding the marketplace with microwavable food and disposable diapers and the host of communications technologies that make it "easier" (ie compulsory) to be in contact with whoever demands your attention. The assumption, which is as deeply rooted as the idea that people love money over all things and will do whatever they must to maximize their portion of it, is that people are inherently lazy, and would love to do nothing but sit around undisturbed by the world around them. It is so pervasive that it seems like commonsense, even seems like something we have always believed about ourselves. A piece about new lightweight vacuum-cleaners in the Journal today illustrates the myth in action: Proctor & Gamble has made a new cordless sweeper to "extend the run of the Swiffer brand, which has benefited from consumers who are ever-lazier in their cleaning habits." Now that aspersion is wrong on many counts. Consumers are ever more obsessive about cleaning, not lazier, and they require more and more gadgets to make the process of housekeeping ever more intricate and complex even as they think they are simplifying it. Also, consumers are not becoming lazier, they merely think they are because of the way these products are advertised and the way they put forward laziness as a life goal, a reward. Our treasured laziness is manufactured; it's part of the ideological ediface that produces passive consumers out of theoretically active subjects. We are actually working harder than ever, but as consumers, shopping like absolute maniacs and misinterpreting shopping as leisure rather than labor. But industry sees the bulk of society as consumers, that is their prime economic function, and hence their useful social labor is to be shopping, ever and always, for ever more gadgets and conveniences and tchotchkes and so forth. There have been seven new evolutions of the Swiffer in the past six years, for God's sake. No one is clamoring for better functionality from a new vacuum cleaner any more than they are for "new and improved" Clorox. But as we accept shopping more and more as our primary purpose on the earth, we begin to assume that this kind of marketing information is of critical import, we begin to care about it as much as the names and birthdays of our nieces and nephews. Convenience is never about ease or personal fulfllment but about speeding up life to allow one to consume more, to spend more time shopping and buying. That's why the "inherent human laziness" trope is a cover-up, an attempt to make it seem like convenience serves the individual's needs rather than the needs of corporations.

This idea that people enjoy laziness is totally upside-down, of course, people want more than anything else meaningful activity that connects them to other people and integrates them into a living tradition that takes the edge off of mortality a bit. But capitalism requires stasis, a quiescent equilibrium to be a fundamental goal, an unequivocal good; it's built into the very models that establish its economic theoretical basis. Assumed laziness is the other side of the profit-motive coin, the simplicity and one-dimensionality of the profit motive as life-purpose nicely meshes with the assumption that people are too lazy to figure out what they want to do in life and just want to "relax" instead. The idea that sitting back and letting one's money make money can be a proxy for actual life activity allows stasis to also seem like an acceptable life reward. Capital becomes alive while the dead hand that possesses it becomes more and more couch-potato like. In other words, you are freed from having actual concrete intentions and ambitions by letting the simplistic goal of money-making stand in for them.

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