Sometime ago when I was in college, I became familiar with a story of which I’m sure many individuals are familiar. The story regarded a well-known fast food franchise and its featured poultry fare. Somewhere along the way, it was said, the franchise had embarked upon a genetic experiment to cut costs and streamline production. The result was a plump and tender organism that tasted a lot like chicken, only there were no feathers that needed plucking, no beaks that might involve pecking, and no talons that might result in injury to some unfortunate poultry plant worker. It was, in essence, just a glob of flesh fed essential nutrients through a series of attached tubes on its way to being happily consumed by an unsuspecting public.
Of course, the story was complete bullshit—an urban legend concocted by some imaginative college student or animal rights activist, who knows, but it’s taken its place among fast food lore, nonetheless. In any case, the story serves as a great analogue for society as a whole in our modern day economic system. Not that I think a select few humans are destined for processing at the Soylent Green facility, but we are remarkably conditioned to feed the economy in a multiplicity of other ways—all of which is the manifestation of a very American type of capitalism that has, perhaps fatally, spread over the world entire.
Economists tell us that we are the all-mighty consumers, but it is the economy that often consumes us. Evidence of this can be seen on the faces of the unemployed or those who have lost their homes in this latest economic downturn. And while this economy consumes anyone willing (or unwilling) to buy into it, it is the bottom half that is most often served up, apple in mouth. We are the hapless lambs offered to the haut monde. Yet, even in this sacrificial status, many of us continue on with our lives, spending unabated if credit allows. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s also quite useful in a system that’s trying to squeeze every last drop of life from its hosts.
And squeeze it does through our spending habits—habits that have been very purposefully and meticulously shaped by a culture dominated by the need to sell massive amounts of often quite useless stuff. Not a single aspect of our behavior—of our lives has been considered without this in mind. Our spending is the lifeblood of the economy and, like that imagined fleshy glob of poultry product, nourishing our desire to spend, to be differentiated from our ability to spend, is essential.
As such, this perverse society in which we live touches on a variety of basic human emotions and urges to provoke our desire to spend. Like some inverse papal edict issued from the highest capitalist authority: envy, want, and pride, for instance, are considered to be virtues of a quasi-religion, whereas plain-old need and frugality is the stuff of the unenlightened masses, or, better yet, those not preordained for success in this temporal world.
Frugality, indeed, might be subconsciously thought of as our original sin and absolution can only come about through consumption. With each successive new generation of lambs (or chickens), the standards of such consumption are elevated. For instance, a time traveler from 1980 might find it hard to accept that we are only 30 years removed from his or her world. The “need” for gadgetry in our day and age has rendered us a collection of technologically dumbfounded addicts. So much so that our concern for safe driving has been subverted in favor of endless, if largely pointless communication with our fellow junkies. I can’t help but think that the break down of civil society is at least partly owed to the blank, unempathic stares of the cell phone throngs. With mindless elements of television, movies, and the Internet aiding in the pathosis—yes, zombies do exist.
Not that I should dwell on the technology hordes. God knows that there are X number of other material goods out there that we have been nurtured to believe we must have. Nor is technology the primary source of our debt (we can thank health care and real estate for most of that burden). But technological gadgetry might be the most inescapable of our addictions, and that alone might make it the most obnoxious. It is an efficacious conveyor of the faith. It’s also a market that, by itself, has remained affordable in some form to even the lowliest of individuals—a true opiate of the masses. One might be just as likely to see a drug dealer carrying the latest cell phone incarnation as they would the young professional on-the-go. Interestingly enough, the former might have a better need-based argument for using such a device round-the-clock.
Technology, more pointedly, is how we are bombarded 24 hours a day with images and sounds imparting the righteousness of frivolous spending through the most deceptive means advertising can offer. It has our devoted attention while, ironically, it distracts from the truly essential things that life has to offer: family, friendship, love, some measure of verity. It provides, instead, a surrogate means for maintaining a connection to those essential aspects—if only to encourage us to spend more, to make us more efficient consumers. Call it conspiracy, but I suspect that we are all just some experiment meant to nourish an economy from which only a few will ultimately find joy. I can’t help but think that there is some better alternative.