The Consumer Society

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Almost as soon as there were cities, there were people who wanted to escape them. The ideal, being close enough to the city to enjoy its advantages while being away from its crowding, usually was limited to the wealthy, who were not inconvenienced by the cost and time involved in traveling in and out. Cities tended to be small and densely packed since people went almost everywhere on foot. Mechanized transport changed all that.

Ferryboats made it possible for suburbs to spring up in a few places, mostly around New York City, which is ideally suited to water transport. Brooklyn began to grow when it became a ferryboat suburb, as did a number of towns along the lower Hudson and in New Jersey. To this day, the Staten Island Ferry is a revered feature of New York life. But ferryboats are slow and have limited capacity, so ferryboat suburbs were few. Suburbs began to proliferate with the coming of the railroad. The term commuter first appears in 1865. But even with the railroad, suburbs tended to be small and populated by the affluent.

Streetcars and interurban rail lines made it possible for suburbs to expand enormously. The United States once had the largest network of urban and interurban railways in the world. The map below shows the system that once existed in the Midwest (note: the map is incomplete - it shows electric rail lines only)

This is the interurban system that once existed in Wisconsin (there was also a short line between Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls). The Fox Valley and lakeshore systems do not connect because you would not have gone from Green Bay to Milwaukee by interurban - there were regular trains for that purpose. These trains served purely local needs only.

It was once possible to go from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains on interurban rail lines, with only a few gaps in the West. In 1900 Berlin had the largest streetcar system in Europe, but twenty American cities had more extensive systems. By 1902 New York's streetcars were carrying a billion passengers a year and the terms rush hour and traffic jam had appeared. The largest system, amazing as it seems, was that of Los Angeles. Los Angeles doesn't sprawl because of freeways; Los Angeles has freeways because it sprawls. The urban sprawl was actually created by the streetcar.

The interurban system that once served southern California.
LAGRID0.GIF (7726 bytes) The animated-live action film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? revolves around a crazy plan to build something called a "freeway" in Los Angeles. Early in the film, the human hero scoffs "Who needs a car in Los Angeles? We have the finest public transportation in the world."

Between the interurban network and the streetcar lines (at left), he wasn't far off the mark.

Don't get the impression the streetcar era was an idyllic time free of corporate corruption. Far from it. More often than not, streetcar lines also owned real estate and tended to extend lines into areas where they wanted to sell real estate, while bypassing areas owned by competitors.

Streetcars were eventually done in by a cartel of oil and rubber companies and General Motors, who bought up and shut down streetcar systems in over 100 cities, not, as popular myth has it, to sell cars, but to sell buses, which were first called trackless trolleys. Streetcar lines, despite their heavy use, generated negligible profits. Buses have substantial advantages over streetcars: they require no tracks or electric lines and can be rerouted easily (This latter "advantage" is doubtful; given a choice between light rail, which is fixed, and buses, which travel convoluted routes, I'll take rail every time.). Buses are better suited to small passenger loads, and in the light traffic before World War II, were probably faster than trolleys. The cartel was eventually taken to court and given a token fine, but by that time the trolley systems were largely dismantled.

The First High-Tech War

I am convinced that historians of the future will se World War II as a tremendous technological and cultural watershed. Films like The Sting or TV shows like The Waltons set in the 1930's have a quaint and foreign feel to them. They're almost as remote as stories about Elizabethan England. One of the things that makes the Indiana Jones films fun is that Indiana Jones is essentially a late 20th century person in attitude raising havoc in an era he really isn't part of. On the other hand, films set in World War II, even those made at the time, have a distinctly modern look and feel.

If the Civil War was the first modern war, in which technology was a crucial element, World War II was the first high-tech war, in which military supremacy depended on innovations made during the war itself. Never before did the outcome of a war depend so much on weapons that didn't even exist in practical form when the war began. Some of the innovations that appeared during the war (again, as with the Civil War, some existed in prototype form earlier) were:

Jet Aircraft, missiles, and nuclear weapons all appeared late in the war. Jet aircraft and missiles did not appear in numbers sufficient to affect the outcome, but the designs of many of the early missiles were surprisingly sophisticated. Although we think of cruise missiles as modern, the very first cruise missile was actually the German V-1, and others were being tested by the U.S. Britain and Germany when the war ended. Had World War II lasted a few years longer, it might well have evolved into a very modern war indeed, fought with jets, cruise missiles, and nuclear weapons.

The most interesting military technology of World War II is the one that wasn't used - chemical warfare. So-called blister agents like mustard gas were known in World War I and nerve agents were discovered in the 1930's as a byproduct of research on insecticides (many insecticides are nerve gas for insects; some of the stronger ones produce positive responses on chemical detectors and are actually used in training in chemical detection in the military). The British had decided to use chemical weapons as a last resort if they were invaded, but none of the belligerents actually used them (except for some uses by the Japanese in China). The overall impression is that the non-use of chemical weapons in World War II was a very near thing.

The Post-War Era

Technology, Needs, and Wants

The Need Hierarchy

The psychologist Maslow developed his famous need hierarchy, which arranges human needs and drives in order of priority:

There are, of course, many individual variations. Some people will sacrifice comfort and perhaps even survival for self-esteem. In some cases the self-esteem may be a matter of preserving social status (risking death rather than appearing cowardly or enduring an insult, for example), in other cases adherence to some code of ethics (for example, risking death to protect victims of genocide). On the whole, though, most people tend to sacrifice self-esteem for comfort and comfort for survival. Exceptions tend to occur when needs higher on the scale are met in abundance; it's more common for relief workers to give up a meal to help someone than for concentration camp inmates.

Refugee situations illustrate the need hierarchy in action. Workers with aid organizations often make conservative welfare reformers look soft in comparison; they are adamant in insisting that refugee relief provide for survival, but not comfort. It is not hard for Western relief efforts to provide standards of living so far beyond those normally found in some parts of the world that refugees are actually discouraged from returning home. As one aid worker remarked to me in Kurdistan, "it's amazing how nasty you sometimes have to be to people to help them."

In a perverse way, the emergence of human cantankerousness in disasters and refugee situations is a good sign. It means that people are sufficiently confident of survival that they can begin worrying about comfort and self-esteem again. It means the life-threatening crisis is largely over.

Technology is the key to satisfying the first two levels. It doesn't take much technology to assure survival under reasonably benign conditions, or even quite harsh ones - the Inuit figured out how to survive in the Arctic thousands of years ago. Comfort takes a bit longer, although American society is already in some ways too comfortable for its own good and even the worst American slum offers amenities like electricity, indoor sanitation and running water that would have been considered fabulous luxuries by the standards of ages past. Indeed, having visited several places that have catapulted from severe poverty to relative affluence in a single human lifetime, it is hard in such settings to see technology as anything but an unmixed blessing.

It's when technology is applied to the quest for self-esteem that many of the real problems associated with technology arise. The quest for self-esteem often expresses itself in a drive for power, control, or supremacy over others, often with technology used as the implement for attaining it. A great deal of the inequality in the world is due to the quest for status rather than any real scarcity. A Middle Eastern saying goes "It is not enough for me to succeed - my enemies must also fail." A society driven by this value system will never achieve plenty for all, regardless of how abundant the resources are, because status not only means acquiring resources but also denying them to others. Since the powerful can confer status or the means to attain it on others, they can lure technologists away from the solution of socially pressing problems into less productive efforts.

Since nobody ever attains perfect self-esteem, there are endless games one can play with peoples' minds. Technology is commonly used to stimulate insecurities, jealousies, and appetites, or to promise fulfillment with the latest gadget. With the latest car you are promised acceptance, status, sex appeal, and at no extra cost, a means of transportation, too.

The problem with the solutions

Critics of modern technology often propose solutions that make the problems worse instead of better, usually because they see the problems as technological. One approach is the Marxist approach of doing away with economic inequality by various restructurings of the system. The fallacy of this approach was easily apparent in the short-lived game Anti-Monopoly, which was pulled off the market after Parker Brothers sued for copyright infringement. Although the game's backers saw the suit as simply another example of corporate power, the game really was a flagrant knock-off of Monopoly, except that winners accumulated "social consciousness" points rather than money. And therein lies the lesson: power and privilege is the name of the game, not money. If money is the route to power and privilege in a society, people will pursue money. If not, they will pursue whatever is. In Anti-Monopoly it was "social consciousness" points. In the former Soviet Union it was connections and Party position; the privileged group, the nomeklatura was not wealthy in traditional economic terms, but they enjoyed the lifestyle of the wealthy. As Henry Kissinger once noted, "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."

In extreme cases, economic reformers have called for the abolition of money itself. This experiment was literally carried out by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia; Cambodia became the only nation in modern history to abolish money. It also saw a bloodbath (chronicled for all time in the film The Killing Fields) in which perhaps a third of the country's population died. The proposition that money is the root of all evil could hardly be more graphically disproven.

So what is the solution? I see it as threefold:

Blue Blood and Red Necks: Technology, Status and Sex Appeal

A lot of research has gone into understanding what constitutes attractiveness in different cultures. Some features seem to be universal; there are no known cultures in which the signs of aging are considered physically attractive, for example. It's well known that women tend to see attractiveness in different terms than men. Men tend to concentrate on physical attributes, which signify reproductive capacity and availability. Women, who both biologically and culturally tend to be burdened with child-rearing, often tend to value attributes that relate to ability to provide for and protect a family.

What does this have to do with technology? Perceived attractiveness is often linked to the attributes below, which are often linked to technology. These are all closely interrelated attributes.

Attractiveness is often closely linked to status, which in turn may be closely linked to technological factors like ownership of resources, leisure, or occupation.
Command of Resources
In need-driven societies, command of resources is closely linked to the perceived ability to support and protect a family. In affluent societies, command of resources means the ability to provide a comfortable, desirable lifestyle. Obviously command of resources is intimately linked to technology.
Willingness to Invest Resources
Here's where Madison Avenue makes its bucks. Any car will get you from point A to point B, but the flashy model shows you have the resources and are willing to spend money to show it. 
Desirable Occupation
These typically are occupations that are seen as exciting, pay a lot of money, involve side benefits like travel, or involve command over others.
Abundant resources mean extensive leisure time, ability to pay others to deal with mundane problems, and the means to indulge in expensive activities like exotic travel.

Very often the attributes that a time or culture consider attractive relate to the availability of resources, which in turn is related directly to technology. One of the most variable attributes of beauty is body proportion. Cultures dominated by scarcity tend to value heavy body styles whereas cultures dominated by abundance tend to value slenderness. In cultures dominated by scarcity, thinness connotes poor nutrition and perhaps chronic disease, but heaviness connotes health and perhaps as importantly, ability to procure sufficient food. In abundance cultures, where freedom from hunger and disease is taken largely for granted, attractiveness often revolves around status, which in turn revolves around access to resources.

It is only recently that even our own society has achieved real abundance. Until well into the 20th century, undernourishment was a significant problem in the United States. The military, which now has standards for excessive weight, was concerned in World War II about recruits who were underweight. Milk and eggs, now widely criticized as sources of fat and cholesterol, were considered excellent sources of vital nutrients a few decades ago.

As technology changes, the rules of attractiveness also change. Some of the important patterns..

The expression "blue blood" is not hard to understand. Look at your wrists. Note the blue appearance of the veins. "Blue blood" once meant that a person was so insulated from the need to work outdoors that the skin was pallid enough for the veins to show. To enhance the effect, women sometimes resorted to various white lead compounds. These had the advantage, if you can call it that, of giving the skin a permanent pallor eventually. At the opposite pole of status, a "redneck" was somebody who had to work outdoors, becoming chronically sunburned in the process. (The term was once highly pejorative, but with entertainers like Jeff Foxworthy using the term, it has lost much of its force.)

With the urbanization of America, the proliferation of sedentary jobs, and the growth of leisure time, the emphasis on attractiveness began to change. Sun tans began to be seen as attractive and healthy; they signified enough leisure to spend time outdoors.

Demolition Derbies

Most people have seen films of head-on train collisions. Ever wonder why there happened to be a movie camera right at the site of a train wreck? The story is an amusing sidelight on America's love affair with the machine.

Locomotives wear out and have to be scrapped. In 1896, the appropriately-named William Crush, vice president of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, came up with a more entertaining and lucrative way of disposing of old locomotives - charge people admission to see a head-on collision. Unfortunately, he underestimated the power of the explosion when the boilers burst. Two spectators were killed, many injured, and the railroad was in litigation for years. Never again would a railroad stage a train wreck.

Watching the event was farmer Joseph Connolly, who saw a potential for a tremendous spectacle if it was done properly. He plowed most of his savings into the attempt and submitted his idea to the Iowa State Fair, who at first were horrified and turned him down. Connolly finally prevailed by assuming all the risks and liability. The event drew 35,000 spectators and was a complete success. From that day on, Connolly was known as "Head-on Joe." Over the years, his wrecks got more spectacular; he took to dousing railroad cars with kerosene to make a more spectacular crash. His last wreck was in 1932, involving two locomotives nicknamed "Hoover" and "Roosevelt." In 36 years he staged 73 wrecks using, predictably, 146 locomotives. He earned over a million dollars, had millions of spectators, and not a single spectator injury.

Automobiles can be recycled creatively, as well. A local variation, popular in the 1920's and 1930's, was driving them off the top of High Cliff near Lake Winnebago.

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Created 18 September 1998, Last Update 2 December 1998

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