The rise and rise of the consumer society

The consumer society originated in the industrial revolution. Today, the presence of ordinary and conspicuous consumption is taken for granted. Like many other things today, the origins of this phenomenon lie in this peaceful revolution, which began in Great Britain.

Prior to the industrial revolution, there was no huge amount of clothes or sugar or other goods being mass produced. Most Europeans, in the centuries prior to the industrial revolution, were content with having one or two pieces of clothing and eating relatively simple meals consisting of minimal sugar.

In fact, one can easily measure the historical advancement of consumerism and the industrial revolution via tracking the amount of sugar consumed.

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As seen above, the sugar consumption shot way up between 1860 and 1900. This was the period when the US overtook Britain in becoming the premier industrial economy in the world.

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As seen above, the number of manufacturing workers more than doubled during the same time.

What was clear by the early twentieth century was that there needed to be a massive market which had to consume all the consumer goods being produced in the US, Europe and various colonies.

So, industrialists such as Henry Ford increased the wages of his workers so that they would have enough money to buy his cars plus the various other goods being produced by the economy.

What is also curious about what transpired over the last hundred years is that everyone, no matter in US or in Europe or Japan, wore the same clothes, drove cars, drank cola, ate a whole bunch of sugar and used similar electronic equipment. The only differentiator, it seems, exists via the curious phenomenon of “brands”, some of which are nation-specific. Many are global.

Today, in 2017, the consumer society is becoming the norm in even more countries of the world. China and India have emerged as not only major economies, but also massive markets for consumer goods. Everyone, in most consumer markets, today uses the same internet and smartphones, while wearing the latest fashion, which has a curious uniformity all over the world.

Moreover, the rise of social networks has connected more people than ever. It has given rise to the attention economy. Now, everyone has the potential to become a micro-celebrity and constantly fret over likes and shares. Also, the phenomenon of personal brands has become ubiquitous.

The interesting aspect of all this is that it has come about more or less via people trading and communicating in a self-organized manner. There has been little involvement of massive, bureaucratic, centralized authorities in bringing this about other than getting out of the way of the consumerism juggernaut. As the theory of self-organized criticality wisely observes, human economic activity has organized itself in a beautiful, organic fashion.

Contrary but true

Here is an interesting quote from Peter Thiel. It is a question which he reputedly asks when hiring new employees:

“Tell me something that’s true but nobody agrees with”

― Peter Thiel

It is interesting because it speaks to a way of thinking which suggests that the way to succeed is to do something which:

  1. no one else is doing and
  2. is useful to others

As human beings, each of us is a unique creation as an individual. No two persons are alike in all aspects. So, it seems natural that each of us has something unique to offer to this world.

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”

    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson again speaks to the same idea as he suggests that as each of us is unique is some way or the other, one can always learn from each person one meets.

Also, as Seneca suggested nearly two thousand years ago, one always has the opportunity to serve and be kind to another human being in all situations. Applying this kind of thinking could lead one very far when it comes to not only business, but many other aspects of life.

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Long vs short

It is a often-repeated teaching in sales that focusing on retaining repeat customers is way more important than getting a sale done immediately.

Malcolm Gladwell in Blink gives an example of a car salesman who is the best-performing salesperson. His secret is shown to be that he has a host of long term customers who absolutely  trust him in their next car purchases.

Similarly, in many other aspects of our life, thinking long term turns out to be a better choice than the short term.

When it comes to relationships, avoiding direct criticisms and having a diplomatic outlook, as suggested in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a way to act in the long term interests of the relationship.

In the world of finance too, a great piece of advice is to avoid or control impulsive buying and, instead, focus on saving for the long term.

Overall, it appears that a change of mindset needs to occur in order for the above to be effective.

Expectations

Expecting to succeed seems a sine qua non of any venture. However, it is evident that many ventures, if not most, do fail. So one needs to be ready to not succeed as well.

But what is interesting is that both the highs and lows, when looked at from the outside, look to be caused by the expectations themselves.

If one starts out with a position of equanimity, it appears that, no matter the result, one comes out ahead with having learned something from the experience.

As Krishna advises Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 47) a position of detachment to the results is often the best approach.

karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana
mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi

A rough translation of this would be:

You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not at any time entitled to the fruits of your actions.
Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.

The second line of the verse is a reminder that one is not in control of the results of one’s actions. At the same time, a position of detachment should not lull one into not taking action.

Effect of social media on society

Social media has had the effect of opening up the channels of communication to all of society.

Since the industrial revolution, there had been a tendency towards a one-way system of communication via media such as newspapers, radio and television.

Everyone now seems to have the ability to post content and read what others have posted. Anyone can step up and begin producing content to be consumed by those naturally drawn to it. One has the ability to choose what to consume. To have an audience, all that one needs is to be found via a search engine.

In doing so, it seems to have swept away the mode of one-way communication. In a way, it has brought back the public village square of the pre-modern era, where one presumably came across people discussing things, preaching and ranting.

This also has had some interesting side effects. It has resulted in the hardening of the so called “bubbles” and fractionalization, wherein people of a particular persuasion (political or otherwise) only tend to read content from and associate with others who think similarly. Much has been said about the effect of social media on events such as the Arab Spring. It remains to be seen over the course of the next century or so how the long term historical effects will look like.

Becoming better

Starting off as a programmer several years ago, I was not very good at what I did. Now that I think about it, I feel like I did not have a clue as to what I was doing, especially during my graduate studies when working or taking courses.

It seems I learned a lot more after starting work in the industry. This was when a sort of discipline and rigor came to be part of the work. Such education is an ongoing process and never ends.

Of course, when it comes to learning soft skills, which are crucial in today’s world, it is still an ongoing learning process.

Overall, it is a long road, but the hope is one gets better as time passes.

Princely states

The rise and existence of princely states during the British Raj in India is quite interesting.

India had been home to several kingdoms before the arrival of the British.

India has had a very fluid history. The Greeks under Alexander had come to the borders of India and met King Porus in battle, but did not proceed in their attempt to conquer. Other “foreign” rulers from the Central Asian Kushans to the Arabs in Sindh and the Turko-Mongol Mughals had ruled the land.

Nonetheless, in the eighteenth century, there were several kingdoms which the British East India company had to deal with. Eventually, they were overcome and the company came to rule the land.

After the mutiny and war of 1857, company rule gave way to the rule of Queen Victoria.

Towards the late nineteenth century, the attempt of the liberal Lord Ripon to give more rights to Indians, such appointment as judges in cases involving both whites and Indians, failed to pass because of colonial opposition. But this also ignited the hopes of the newly emerging Indian educated class to seek out their interests.

Towards the turn of the twentieth century, the British rulers came to realize that they had to come up with some ideas to somehow legitimize and continue their rule of India.

Tory politicians in Britain came up with the idea of reviving and propping up some local “rulers” of various Indian provinces. Lord Curzon, the Tory viceroy, was glad to hand out titles and money to all such princes. The elaborate scheme of having hierarchical gun salutes was crafted as a way to provide authenticity to these local rulers. Thus a network of proxy rulers were established all over the land whereby the people were convinced by the right of their local kings to rule, while the British pulled the strings in the background.

Thus came about the existence of the princely states. When India gained independence in 1947, the rulers of these princely states were well entrenched. A compromise had to be made to pay them money for having given up “their kingdoms” in the form of a privy purse, a practice which was carried out for over twenty years after independence.

Practical philosophy

Philosophy oftentimes can become very abstract and otherworldly. This makes it out of reach for many people who would otherwise find it very useful.

The stream of what appears to be noise coming from ivory towers are not something very appealing to most people.

However, an ancient philosophy which is both practical and approachable is the one espoused by Epictetus who said:

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it

Epictetus was an advocate of stoicism which is a simple, practical philosophy of personal ethics.

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca were two other famous ancient Roman stoics.

The writing of these philosophers is very reachable to everyone. The philosophy is also timeless because, as humans, we could always make use of such a well developed and robust system of personal ethics.

Nitty gritty

When it comes to making changes to a software program, it helps greatly to have an automated test suite which has sufficient coverage of the code.

The advantage provided by having such a suite is that many fundamental errors are caught at an early stage. Also, when it comes down to the nitty gritty of any code change, a test suite acts like a good quality-inspector.

This way, users do not run into basic starting problems.

 

Society

Human beings, from time immemorial, have lived in societies and tribes.

There is a well known saying: “No man is an island”.

Thinking about society and how it has evolved, it’s current state and it’s future is one of the main preoccupations of many writers and thinkers over the centuries.

When viewed from the viewpoint of an individual living in a society, it appears that individuals benefit the most from a variety of factors such as family and community.

As a side note, this approach of considering the well being of the individual is a product of the Enlightenment. Previous to this, the perspective of the individual was not considered much. Humans were seen more as groups of people belonging to certain tribes or communities.

It would definitely be interesting to me to learn about the private lives of people living in the ancient, medieval and early modern eras as it would provide a great perspective.