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I rarely review media portrayals of consumerism. The job would be endless, tedious and repetitive pointing-out of how television (defined as any video presentation for entertainment intended to generate revenue, regardless of platform) is the bully pulpit for the illness.
But I was actually shocked at a highly regarded entry into the field this year, to the point of writing the following essay for another platform—on which it generated no interest whatsoever. So here it is, six months later, for an audience that might actually get the message.
Warning: spoilers abound. And the overall argument could elude anyone who hasn’t completed watching Season 1 of Upload, and ruin the show for new viewers.

The first half is spoiler-free, but continuing and prospective viewers should heed the warning when they reach it.
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Netflix recently [1 May 2020] dropped a charming new comedy, Upload, a very “twenty minutes into the future” (actually about thirteen years) millennial thought/laughfest. The premise is simple, if as infinitely deep as chess: digital recordings of people can live on after death in a virtual afterlife.

The premise of an afterlife that’s not quite what we’ve been promised has been done a lot recently, from The Good Place (which appears to be the “real” heaven if not quite what the paintings show) down to the urban-slum version of hell frequently visited by John Constantine. A colleague noted that this show’s notions may be most similar to Philip K. Dick’s insanely brilliant 1969 novel Ubik, where the frozen almost-dead share a virtual universe subject to unusual forces. (I could only kick myself for not thinking of one of my all-time favorite books right off the bat.)

It stars lesser-known actors, always a plus when the casting is good, and it is. Robbie Amell is charming and handsome in the lead role of Nathan, newborn avatar in the digital afterlife, backed by the drop-dead gorgeous Allegra Edwards playing his convincingly shallow girlfriend Ingrid. Andy Allo kills the role of the system overseer who falls for her digital charge, cute as a bug all the way. Other than Amell, known from his turn in the CW’s “Arrowverse” and as Arrow star Stephen Amell’s prettier younger brother, perhaps the biggest name in the show is William B. Davis, best known as “Cigarette-Smoking Man” from The X-Files (and in an even deadlier role). It’s always refreshing to not see a big name star playing themselves, so points to the showrunners here even if the casting was (likely) a budgetary issue as much as any esthetic choice.

The show is tagged as a satire, which, since the demise of the great Max Headroom long ago means, in TV-speak, a comedy first and barbs second. Sharp pokes are made at everything from invasive advertising to the ultra-wealthy who influence politics. Although language is toned down to the occasional f-bomb (quite mild by today’s standards for young-adult fare), sex and nudity are at broadcast-TV levels; it’s been a long time since I saw a nominally adult show do the full bedsheet fandango to cover even a hint of boob. It actually becomes distracting in itself, and I wonder if there was some retconned idea to make it a satire of the casual nudity in most equivalent shows. It’s certainly not family-friendly, with those occasional f-bombs, some very adult topics and no shortage of crass boob and dick jokes.

And every episode contains at least one jump-out-of-your chair zinger; if Nathan’s upload sequence doesn’t make you shout in horrified laughter, this is the wrong show for you.

All in all, it’s ten short (half-hour) episodes worth the viewing time: handsome actors, beautiful settings, intriguing concept and a complex murder mystery holding it all up, as hip and courant as this week’s nightclub. I’m looking forward to the just-announced Season Two.


(Spoilers follow; Hic sunt dracones.)

There are layers in this show touched on to greater or lesser degree that can pass for satire and will probably be perceived at no deeper level by most viewers. A few elements may be long leads for the second season storyline. But many things said and unsaid, shown and unshown, represent a level of horror belied by the beautiful backdrop of upstate New York. (Although the show is shot in Vancouver, like most indie productions these days, the signature afterlife resort is in the Catskills.)

The horror underlying the humor, the satire, the romance and even the central murder mystery is one we live with out here in the meat world, but turned up to at least eleven: consumerism.

Yes, of course, on the one hand egregious consumption and all that goes with it is part of the surface sheen of the show and storyline. The setting, “Lakeview,” is one of the top afterlife providers, if not the pinnacle destination for luxurious prerecorded living. It is clearly phenomenally expensive; a passing comment establishes that continuing Nathan’s existence there for a month or two would cost on the order of $10,000. Only his extremely wealthy meat-side girlfriend Ingrid can keep his bill paid, and even then, she keeps his expense account on a short, short leash.

Yes, expense account… because even at some five thou a month, the only features life in Lakeview includes are a fairly minimal hotel room, the right to roam the grounds and all you can eat at the central buffet. (Eat, but not necessarily enjoy; that’s a later turn in the story line.) Like the most grifting, grasping hotel resorts and cruise lines, absolutely everything else costs. A lot. Whether through future inflation or sheer greed, a soda from Nathan’s mini-bar is $3.99. Participation in activities is as pricey as any destination resort. And so forth. Nathan is perpetually frustrated because his girlfriend at first allows him no spending money, then only a tightly controlled amount, and it’s a running gag that he’s something of an unfortunate among his virtual peers because he can’t buy things he wants or needs.

So: buying overpriced things is funny. Ha ha. Meant to give viewers a minor pleasurable squirm at a brief thought of their own buying habits but let’s move on now joke’s over.

Nathan, however, is buying… virtual items. The equivalent of costume bling, pet treats and weapon skins in video games. They have no existence. They have essentially no cost to the system operators. But paid for with real money — Lakeview dollars, as they’re called in a late episode, are purchased with real dollars by the outside funding, at, we assume, a one to one ratio. So Nathan’s virtual Mountain Dew, free of any real existence or manufacturing expense, costs Ingrid four real bucks. Lakeview bucks are otherwise valueless; the operators quite casually give away a million-dollar virtual prize at one point, with the parallel cash reward on the meat-world side being $1,000. I don’t think it’s overly socialist, bleeding heart or weepy to say that nothing inside this virtual reality should cost anything extra — anything over the running cost of being there — as it represents no tangible value and has no tangible cost for the worldrunners.

It’s simply profit from a captive audience, coerced and induced to buy things.

My goodness… how real.

On one level, already noted, it’s just a yuk for the audience, how consumerism is carried into the virtual world. Again, ha ha. And ha. The show ratchets this up, though, with fairly intensive marketing at the avatars, from floating pop-up ads as they stroll the garden to obnoxious sales-avatars that are perpetually trying to get the residents to try Orbit gum or a Taco Bell Gordita Crunch. (At retail cost, it turns out; you’re charged if you take one.) So even someone who came to heaven — excuse me, Lakeview — to live a peaceful, possession-free life is as pitched and battered as they were while a meat sock. Pitched to spend real money on literal phantasms.

This, with all apologies to the delightfully inventive showrunners, is where it stops being funny.

I have for some time maintained that consumerism is the most destructive force in the modern world, at the root of nearly every national and global ill — social, economic, ecological and political. The insane pressure to consume to our very limits, and shape our lives to maximize our consumption is an acid slowly dissolving all that’s important and real, all for a fantasy form of life not much more tangible and meaningful than Lakeview.

So what the show really represents is not heaven, not paradise, not even an earthly reward… but the “right” to keep existing, at substantial cost… so that you may continue to be an economic engine, an eternal consumer after all your need to consume is ended. A way to be continually sheared of leftover or family wealth, just as in life, while being assured it’s your choice and that you love it. There’s no word about taxes in Upload, and it’s made plain that death is just the beginning… so only marketing is truly eternal.

There are hints in the show that the characters and the showrunners aren’t unaware of this, in the running subplot about cheaper afterlife systems. Nathan and his partner were apparently done developing a freeware afterlife program, although it’s glossed over that even individual owner/users would have to provide a server and keep it operating, at something above negligible cost. We get just a short look at a new competitor, Freeyond, a “free” afterlife initially open only to the homeless and disabled. Cue all the feelgood vibes that came with Facebook and Twitter and so forth when those were “the people’s software for the people”… but before they and all that followed became immensely profitable marketing and datamining platforms.

The one hint we get about Freeyond is that residents will “get to” build it themselves… which makes sense at first, in that sturdy American values way, but about two seconds later begins to sound odd. What’s the point of a user, even a free one, having to “build” his or her own house — even presuming the old, sick and disabled are given healthy new avatar bodies to enable such efforts? The system operators could provide everything prebuilt, for the choosing, at a trivial development cost and none during runtime. So what’s the point of these free-loaders “building” their own world? (As opposed to, say, being able to customize or remodel it.)

The one thing explicitly banned from Lakeview: employment.

It’s mentioned in passing that avatars, at least those in Lakeview, are not allowed to work or otherwise participate in meat-world commerce or business. Which again makes a sort of sense; it’s even suggested that older employees and managers (you know, the useless ones) should upload — commit suicide — just to make room for new blood. But once again, a few moment’s thought will make hash of the show’s logic and reveal the real reason avatars are barred from “working,” even though they seem fully compos and able to do so.

It’s called slavery. And anyone wealthy enough to afford afterlife in Lakeview is certainly no one’s slave.

On the other hand, folks who are giving up life in the streets and group homes and institutions and a crippled body for a fresh new life in Freeyond… might indeed find themselves “building”… things for outside, meat-world employers.

Otherwise known as slaveholders.

Oh, no, it won’t start that way and may never be called that. But the poor and indigent and desperate who upload to Freeyond could well find themselves called to pay for their presence through contract employment for outside service — anything a meat human could do through remote work and telepresence, an avatar could do just as well. Customer service, virtual phone/webcam sex (and, with the encounter suits, not-so-virtual sex), teaching, security guard, remote prison guard… anything. Everything. And with no inconvenient meat-body limitations and few if any laws protecting the avatars; migrant labor and white-slave prostitutes at least have the theory of legal protection, but digital constructs are explicitly at the whim of their assigned ‘owner,’ who might decide work should proceed 24/7/365.

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There is the promise of a return from upload to meat status, but it has a few lethal bugs and likely will cost a stratospheric amount to buy one’s way back into meat life. No, upload into a digital realm is one-way for most candidates, with the only alternative eventual oblivion, their avatar erased. Or the perpetual threat of erasure, unless they are good slaves. (Much as Nathan is to his controlling girlfriend.)

Even without getting into sordid and degrading virtual employment, the notion of avatars working full days as bottled AI processing insurance forms and accounting is bad enough. After all, this is supposed to be “heaven” in some sense; no notion of a desirable afterlife I’ve ever heard accommodates the yuk, “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” (Okay, maybe Valhalla with its endless battles, but that’s considered a plus.) And such working would be, effectively, eternal. Possibly some worker-slaves could be promised freedom-retirement… for the second time around. And no doubt an entire consumer economy would pervade this “free” world and multiply the fostered desire of the avatars to earn as much as they possibly can to own as much phantom goods as they can, thus extending their servitude. Forever, or until the power grid burns out, or until their outside owner/guardian no longer needs them.

*click*. And liiiiighhhtsss… ouuuuutt.

Endless existence as a work-earn-spend more!-consume ghost. Now that’s a horror story. A truly red-white-blue-and-green American horror story. All Season 2 needs is a cameo from Jessica Lange.

Update, April 2022

The second season of Upload dropped, considerably delayed by pandemic issues etc.

It's worth noting that the seven episodes spend a total of about three hours going nowhere in particular, in either show development or any of the meta-issues above. The small plot toys with the notion of 'virtual babies,' which is creepy enough except for the suggestion that each is actually a new, synthetic human created from the memories of the 'parents'—a notion worthy of its own deep exploration—while the "big story" is that the free afterlife is actually a convoluted political plot. And the other shoe drops: the near-impossibility of "downloading" back into a human body from the first season is now just a comic-book "could cause plot complications" that does.

The extreme consumerism of the first season is a mere humorous backdrop in the second. Of course. Everyone knows consumerism is just a joke.

James Gifford (sig)

All of the Renegade Consumer message, and really all forms of consumer awareness and protection, come down to a single right.

That right can be stated in a simple declarative sentence. Grasping it, and all it represents, though, will take a solid leap of understanding... of mental re-ordering, of dismissing carefully fostered illusion... of faith, perhaps. So consider:

We have a right not to be sold to.

And there you have it.

Your response is likely something close to the "Well, of course!" end of revelatory reactions, if not a more emphatic, "Well, duh!" But it's right there, in that obviosity, in the inherent sense that 'we have a right not to be sold to' along with something like 'we have the right not to be hit by a bus,' or 'we have a right not to be eaten by zombies' that both problem and solution lie.

The problem is that some overwhelming majority of us carry the idea of that right as that level of assumption, up there with buses, meteorites and zombies. It is part of the basis for the notion held by many that we are somehow inherently immune to advertising and marketing, affected only if we consciously (or through flaccidity of spine) accept it. This is of course nonsense: the childish/self-serving belief that consumer engagement is somehow a level playing field with equally matched combatants.

There is an increasing tide of insightful writings on how the 'MIC' uses ever more sophisticated approaches to sell to us: from ever more invasive tracking to the perceptions of big data to behavioral engineering at the most cutting edge of the field. Let's just accept all that, and that awareness is finally rising, which is to the greater (greatest?) good.

But even the most insightful writers are still stuck in something of the same groove as 'consumer advocates': they can't see the rain forest for the ground cover. They discover, they analyze and they rail, if not rant. Some are doing so from the highest bully pulpits in the media. Hearteningly, most comments responding to these articles and essays reflect a rising level of public awareness and agreement. But still, they don't quite make that final leap, that this terribly invasive, controlling, life-shaping manipulation is transgressing not only our right to choose which color blender we might want, but that right stated above:

We have a right not to be sold to.

Pundits and public alike have not yet made the leap from "it's wrong to try and sell us crap this way" to the more fundamental "it's wrong to (relentlessly) try and sell us crap... at all." Consumer advocates will spend eight pages explaining which blender you should buy... but never say not to buy one at all. And these increasingly "woke" observers of consumer issues can spit venom at, say, the monstrous invasiveness that is Alexa Q. Amazon... but not see that the whole press of buybuybuy is in itself even more monstrous.

But yes, I adamantly maintain that this is a real right, and that we have been coerced into not only abandoning it but rejecting it—as real, as important, as something we are inherently entitled to. So once again, turn these words over slowly in your mind:

We have a right not to be sold to.

If you should still be finding this obvious, or silly, or as pointless as if I am banging my fist on a lectern about our right not to become zombie chow, put it all in a larger context. We are incessantly pounded to buy, and we long ago left behind the more or less balanced relationship of "advertising" over there and our carefully-guarded wallet over here. We are fifty years or more into the era of not just "selling" but manipulation, coercion, outright brainwashing into perceived need and consumption. Modern marketing has gone far beyond simple enticement and want-inducement to finding ways to trigger base behavioral responses, to "sell" to our hindbrain and to short-circuit judgment, resistance and real choice.

We have been, and are, relentlessly pounded by the disinformat campaign of thousands of powerful consumer goods sellers, many of us for our entire lives. The binding of this campaign to "convenience" like Alexa/Siri and to inappropriate areas like entertainment and the interior of the family home has pressed this cold war right to our souls... as the current generation of body- and personal-space-monitoring systems attests.

And we just gobble it up, because we've been convinced it's just the greatest innovation and advancement of lifestyle. And, by God and Steve Jobs, a necessity.

But turn this around a little. In what other arena would we tolerate this omnipresent, overwhelming, titanic, invasive roar to do something against our individual judgment?

Religion? Hardly. If the Catholics or evangelists or Scientologists took to the public arena with an everpresent, inescapable campaign of proselytization, we wouldn't tolerate it for a week before First Amendment-bending laws contained the effort to an appropriate, or at least smaller space.

I could give a series of such examples, but let's jump right to the nuclear option, and what may be the closest societal analogue to the crushing pressure of marketing: sexual and gender relations. After a slow pushback of the historical order over the last several decades, we finally exploded at the assumption of a subset that sexual harassment, oppression and life-control was an okay, wink-wink, everybody-knows thing. Women in particular have had to swim in an environment where a spectrum of unwanted attention, coercion, innuendo and outright violation was "just how it is."

But now, after MeToo and the public crucifixion of some of the worst offenders and propagators, we finally seem to be over the top that no, it's not okay to grope your secretary, make lewd remarks to co-workers, assume that any sexually desirable person just has to put up with any form of your walking arousal. From face-slaps to lawsuits to national disgracing, those subjected to this "way it is" attention and control have said, "Enough."

And it's time for us, as consumers, to say "Enough."

Apple and Amazon and Target and Procter-Gamble and Frito-Lay and Gap and Ford and every other consumer-good maker and seller in the world needs to be told, frankly, to fuck off.

To get back to their side of the field; to deal with us as individuals and buyers worthy of a respecting relationship. To present us with their wares—necessary, nice, desirable, useless or outright crap—all they like. But not to invade, control, brainwash, manipulate and spent their greatest efforts on trying to bypass our judgment to all but mug us into buying what they want to sell.

It's very, very simple—as simple as the idea that you can't do any of the above to get a bit of slap and tickle, either. This equally simple idea needs to inform every writer, every reader and every subject of the massive monitoring, tracking, invasion and coerced consumption assault. We need to go beyond simple outrage that Apple and Amazon and Google are invading our personal space—increasingly, our very, very personal and family space—for absolutely no reason except to increase their sale and revenue. From MeToo to UsAll. From Black Lives Matter to Consumer Privacy Matters.

We need to understand that this is a dirty, distorted reflection of a right we have been cheerfully schooled to ignore:

We have a right not to be sold to.
We have a right not to be sold to.
We have a right not to be sold to.

Ball's in your court.

James Gifford (sig)

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A new word has risen into increasing use in the last few years: Hypercapitalism.

As is the case with neologisms, there are some varying definitions and interpretations, the broadest of which is a relatively obvious “capitalism carried to an extreme [at the expense of societal values]” or the like. A trace of older usages follow this definition. Edging out that dull and linear meaning, though, is a more specific one:

hypercapitalismnoun — 1. The idea that every action has monetary value. 2. The idea that every personal effort deserves compensation.

The older form of the word has sparse usage back to the 1930s and 40s, but rose sharply in the last decade. The capitalized form is even more recent. It's my suggestion that we deprecate the older, more generic, largely useless (through being obvious and generic) interpretation in favor of the above, stronger, more relevant one.

But enough lexicography for one day. What does the term mean?

In a nutshell, hypercapitalism is the idea that every act is worth compensation. While this can be tenuously sustained for business and commercial acts, even those not necessarily leading to direct value for customers or consumers as a whole, the real application is to individual acts and efforts. The perpetual drive to consume, which drives the bottomless desire to earn, has driven some vast percentage of people to believe their every action should cause coins to drop. Not just believe out of greed, but believe on the level of natural law or entitlement.

There have always been greedy people, yes. There are always those around who value their time, knowledge and expertise (real or imagined) so much that they won't contribute it without some form of compensation, preferably cash in hand. There are always those who see personal and community interaction as a tree to be shaken for loose change.

Hypercapitalism is more: in the most everyday sense, it's the idea that it's acceptable and perfectly ordinary, even ordained to charge for doing something for a friend, a neighbor, a group or a community. it is the antithesis of the idea that some things are done for their own sake, or for the benefit of those who choose to participate, or even just in the name of friendship or neighborliness... never mind charity.

And yes, there always have been charitable people as well — kind people, giving people — from those who work with Doctors Without Borders down to a neighbor who comes over to help you with a heavy garbage can. But more and more, these categories of good and kind and charitable people have come to believe that their giving deserves compensation. Beyond compensation (for costs or inconvenience), they believe they are entitled to profit from their acts.

Grouping for Dollars

Let me give a fairly narrow example. I often look for organized groups that have interests I share. One area I search is writing groups. Like most such areas, the spectrum of these groups covers a wide range, starting with the "Yes, You Can Write Your Memoirs!" circles for novice, mostly older aspirants. But many are at higher levels, for those with some degree of experience and commitment to the trade. And now... a vast number of these no longer have simple meetings, get-togethers or critique circles; they instead have one “workshop” after another, with fees that are often beyond token. Instead of writers with similar interests getting together to support each other, these groups have become marketing platforms to sell much the same service to each other — or, more likely, for one or two organizers to continually sell these programs to the participants. What was once free, and could still be freely shared, is now a commodity to be monetized and profit center without a whole.

I see much the same happening in other areas of community-group involvement, even utterly free-worthy types such as book clubs and craft circles. It is endemic in almost all “business” and “marketing” focused groups, which will be no surprise. The organization is not to bring together like minds, or associate for the benefit of association, or provide mutual support, but to provide a fixed participation pool for pay-to-play events. Because, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, only a blockhead would organize for any other reason.

Bits for Coins

A broader example is this, the good ol’ world wide web (with “world” excluding parts of China and Russia, but never mind). Since its inception, there has been a contingent intent on shaking money from it—seeing it not as connectivity or community or a collective avatar of humanity, but a money tree that will yield untold riches if shaken hard enough—and according to the most arcane rules of the moment. The web, bless its digital heart, largely resisted this public mugging for many years, with only a few lucky players actually making a profit from shaking its dice. And then, of course, entities like Amazon figured out the process and it devolved down the chain.

It's not so bad that the web, nominally owned by no one and everyone, is used for commerce and profit. What is bad is how utterly clogged it is with third-rate efforts based not on information or entertainment or utility, but on some form of paywall, pay-to-play or begging-for-bitcoins. Sites created not to present news, not to enable an industry or hobby or interest, not for any public good or contribution or even sincere vanity... but first, foremost and with everything bent to shake some goddam pelf out of visitors,

People's exhibit A: all clickbait. Anything for a click-through, a visit, and hopefully a capture to sell something or scrape off valuta. Or—in the universal last-ditch scream for manna—advertising revenue.

This essay sat unfinished for a while, without a conclusion or a more focused point to make. Nailing down the existence of the phenomenon and giving it a name is not always enough. But then, the important point coalesced:

Is it a form of sociopathy to regard everyone around you—friend, neighbor, co-worker, acquaintance, passerby—as a target of economic opportunity?

Is it okay to think of people as walking ATMs, to be relieved of some of their wealth by some act or service you provide... whether that service has any real value or need in the first place, and whether it is something long considered a kindness, a courtesy, a gesture of friendship and not a pull of the payment lever?

Yeah. It is an induced pathology. And it's all part of the madness driven, at its root, by—you guessed it—consumerism. The gnawing, fostered need to acquire as much wealth as possible, that we might consume a yet larger share.

In promoting the Renegade Consumer message, and even the more general message that consumers are far more hamstrung and limited in rights than most people believe, there are certain common arguments that newcomers toss out again and again.

Most of these arguments stem from the smug assurance that consumers—smart ones, at least, which always includes the speaker—just know that marketing is a shuck that can only mislead the weak of mind and will. And not a few of these views are carefully fostered by the marketing world, using flattering assurances, direct and indirect, that of course the reader/viewer/listener is much too smart to fall for any deception—so they should buy this product.

What follows are three of the most common arguments in this vein. Understanding them and their relatively simple counterarguments give you powerful tools to lead a newcomer past the cardboard castle walls of their mistaken belief, and into the beginning of a better understanding of their role and situation as a consumer.

1: The Budweiser Argument

What I call the Budweiser argument is one of the truly simplistic rejections of not just Renegade Consumer thinking, but pretty much all very basic consumer awareness thinking. It's usually phrased thusly:

I just saw an ad for Budweiser, and I didn't run down to the store for a six-pack. Obviously advertising doesn't really work... not on me, at least.”

Well, where to start? With these points:

  1. This person does not understand that advertising is rarely meant to provoke an immediate response. Only a very small subset of ads, whether on TV or in print, are meant to make the recipient leap up and go or do or buy something that minute. There aren't many more, at a major advertiser level, that are even meant to have an effect from that one exposure, or in any short term. Advertising for most consumer goods, from major makers, is meant to be cumulative—months, years even a lifetime of conditioning so that eventually Budweiser! jumps off the shelf into their arms. It's all about long, subtle conditioning of biases that are triggered at the moment of selection from the shelf.
  2. More generally, this person does not understand that advertising is a small part—not always even a significant part—of product marketing. There are many other forces building the conditioning to grab that brand when it's seen on a shelf. Most major consumer products are promoted in a dozen ways, only one of which is what we perceive as advertising.
  3. And underneath it all is the belief that advertising—or even marketing—has to “work” in some obvious, defined way that is consciously perceived. That, for example, seeing a Bud ad would provoke a powerful desire to run get a six-pack and chug one down. Marketing most certainly does work, but not with the sudden force of an avalanche. More like a sand dune slowly engulfing part of a city, and just as irresistible if the process is not fully understood.

Believing you are immune to “advertising” is almost certainly an indication that you are more susceptible to marketing's effects... because you don't recognize them except in the smug belief that you are making your own free choices.

2: The Peanut Butter Argument

I love it when my grocery store tracks my purchases, because it means they will always have my brand of peanut butter in stock.”

Well, no. Well, maybe in the earliest days of grocery tracking, at the crudest level of data collection and interpretation. But not since.

For one thing, a store doesn't need to track who buys Skippy Extra Chunky—they can simply look at their shelf sales total for the same information. Either they sell enough of it to keep on the shelf, or they don't, and whether or not Suzy Q. Strawberry or Shopper F2150979 buys it is largely irrelevant. If Suzy and/or F-number are the only two buying it, it's going to disappear from the shelf.

But it might not have, in days past. Grocery stores used to stock a vast number of slow-moving items on the theory that having jellied anchovies on the shelf was essential to the people who bought the six cans a year they sold. There was both a slight pride in “having everything” (or at least more than the guys across the street) and a sense that having each of these slow sellers kept some segment of their clientele happy.

But that's not how it works any more. Not in any store that uses shopper tracking, which is a majority these days. The profit margins are too slim and the entire food industry too brutal a battleground to allow such slack and sentiment to run things.

Tracking who buys what and doing so on a running basis generates a profile—which can well be anonymous—that is subject to intense and subtle interpretation. It is possible to infer, for example, which customers won't care if they stop carrying jellied anchovies, and which ones might actually shop somewhere else if such a low-sales item isn't available. So if you like an obscure natural peanut butter with cinnamon in it and your shopping pattern shows you won't mind if it's no longer available, don't count on there being your three jars a year there any more. On the other hand, your profile might show that you spend $6,000 a year there and are likely to expect that oddball product to be available... in which case it is worth keeping on a bottom shelf.

But more likely your choices of peanut butter will shrink to the eight or ten brand and size combination that 90% of shoppers buy... and too bad about that fancy stuff, or even another major brand, or a full selection of sizes. And that's what intense consumer tracking is really all about, these days: being able to reduce the inventory to only the most profitable items, without losing one extra customer by not including select low-traffic items. Tracking you and every other shopper has let the store reduce your overall choice to only what is most profitable for them and their suppliers.

As for anonymity, and those who are smug because they gave a false name or phone number or even use two or more cards... that really has little effect on the purposes and goals of the process. They don't really care too much what you, as an identifiable individual, buy... but then again, it is usually trivial to connect this shopping data to the much larger consumer behavior record at data aggregators. So that plastic-sack mask doesn't really do you much good.

Which leads to...

3: The Chicken Argument

I don't care if Google and Facebook track everything we do, because there are so many chickens in this flock they can't possibly know or care what any one of them does.”

Well, maybe in prior eras. It was not that long ago that computing power and algorithms that could handle more than a few dozen data points for a few thousand records was NASA- and NSA-grade stuff. Now, the processing theory and algorithms of “big data” make analysis of enormous data sets productive, and the immense computing power to run them is within the grasp of relatively small firms—and rentable by anyone.

Big data allows analysis of hundreds of data points across hundreds of thousands of records, and like any comb with finer and finer teeth, can extract enormously subtle inferences and show patterns that are not readily visible to coarser interpretation. Things like spotting customers who may only remain with a store because of a few specialty items become simple... as does deciding how many of those customers you can afford to lose by closing out all the low-sales, low-profit inventory you can.

Those who don't understand this revolution in both data management and data interpretation that is transforming everything from government to healthcare to (especially!) marketing likely assume that stat is as they learned it in back on college... whether five years ago or fifty. It's not, and few things hold as much promise—and truly dark potential—as the rise of big data. Yes, your scrawny little record of shopping is of interest and value, especially when it's added to the huge aggregate of data about you and your life in the major accumulators like Google and Acxiom.

And none of it is used for your benefit, peanut butter or otherwise.

This should really be called the Ostrich argument... but that applies to all these viewpoints and more, because here as in so many other situations, poking your head in the sand doesn't cover your ass.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded;
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows the war is over;
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed;
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes...
Everybody knows.

So Leonard Cohen put it, and so I've discovered in discussing the renegade message. Everybody already knows it all — they know that ads lie and that we buy too much crap and that very little of it is a wise purchase or even a good value. They know that we spend money we don't have on things we don't need even if we have to borrow it... even if we have to lie to borrow it; even if we have to lie to ourselves to borrow it. They know that it's bad to keep spending all your money, especially on crap someone told you defines a life worth living.

But they keep doing it anyway.

Everybody knows that the world is nothing like the fantasyland portrayed by ads.  Everybody knows that marketing exists solely to manipulate us... but of course everybody knows it only works on stupid and gullible people. Everybody knows that it's all one big whirl of cynicism and waste and looking out for number one. Everybody knows that forgetting “caveat emptor” brings only well-deserved and essentially self-inflicted pain.

And then they complain about their aching back.

While contemporary songwriters croon us to sleep with the soothing message that everybody knows what cynical losers we are, we have to listen to an older wit to put it all in context:

Josh Billings photo
"Josh Billings"
(Henry Wheeler Shaw, 1818-1885)

It ain't what we know that gets us into trouble. It's what we know that ain't so.
— Josh Billings*

In this case, it's not the small and filtered amount most of us know about marketing and consumerism, or even the much larger amount we don't know. No, it's very much what we know that “ain't so.” For all its familiar lyrics, the renegade message — the voice of renegade consumer philosophy and synthesis — is not something everybody knows. It's about the parts that few people understand, even though they're in plain sight. It's about the overall picture decades of conditioning have trained us to interpret in ways that benefit only the hustlers. The marketing world delights in its mastery of "ain't so."

Which, as I say in many places, is not your fault. It's natural to take new information and store it in the most convenient existing pigeonhole. It takes work to learn new information. It takes extra work to create a new category of ideas. It takes more work yet to replace comforting "ain't so's" with unsettling alternatives... but that's exactly what grasping the renegade consumer message requires. Unfortunately, no one can do this work for you. You have to carry out your own accumulated garbage to make room for these replacement ideas.

The very word “consumerism” has a pigeonhole in most people's minds, and all that's attached to the term follows it right in. Extend the discussion to include “advertising” and “marketing” and similar terms only opens that same bin wider; the content is absorbed and filed without having ever really passed through conscious consideration... because the listener "already knows."

The biggest hurdle in getting newcomers to grasp what Renegade Consumer is all about is thus getting them to set aside their assumptions long enough — just long enough; a short time, really — to understand what's different about these ideas, and what parts don't fit in the same pigeonhole as everything else generically tagged “consumerism.” I've discovered that I can't lower that hurdle much; I can't overcome generations of conditioning and indoctrinated belief in any short and simple way. I can only give each new potential renegade the ability to clear the hurdle as it stands.

The forthcoming book does the best job by far of taking the reader to a complete understanding... but "forthcoming" doesn't help anyone yet. The material slowly accumulating here will take the careful reader a good part of the way to clearing the path, but it will take time and effort — work — to process. I can't do much to make it simple, but if you've read this far I am bound to try and give you a short-form introduction to the ideas that Renegade Consumer is striving to pass along. Understand that this is short-form. I don't mean any of these statements to stand on its own, unchallenged and unsupported... but I assure you the long form of the material here and the book support them in the sturdiest ways.

So take a breath and a sip of whatever you have at hand. Relax. Open your mind, concentrate and try to accept this as "what's really so":

  • We have been conditioned over generations by the unceasing efforts of the consumer goods industry, through generations of marketing effort, to accept acquisition and consumption as a major purpose (if not the major purpose) of our lives. Not consumption that betters our lives, but consumption at any cost that provides maximized profits for the goods makers.
  • We have been collaterally conditioned to make choices that will maximize our ability to earn and thus spend and thus consume. We have evolved into a culture that prizes the ability to consume over many other truly admirable achievements.
  • You have better choices within your immediate grasp.
  • These choices are better because they will allow you to restructure your life around elements more important than earning a maximum amount of income to support a maximum amount of consumption.
  • The amount each individual will be able to change his or her life, and their family's lives, will depend on their understanding of how they are being manipulated, and have been conditioned since Grandma had pigtails.




* The funny thing about this quote is that it's frequently misattributed to a dozen others, including Mark Twain and Will Rogers... so the quip itself becomes something many people “know that ain't so.”

Everybody Knows lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

Until now, nearly all consumer spending has faced a final barrier that is underrated in its ability to stop the most egregious and unnecessary purchases. That barrier has been targeted by retailers for a long time, and just cracked.

Amazon has had the "Go" project in the works for quite a while. I saw it coming years ago - in successive drafts of the book, the topic went from a paragraph of "could-be" to a page of "coming soon." It sounded as loopy and absurd as many of the other things I wrote about early, like consumer tracking, food engineering for addiction and the dangers of big data. But then I saw ads for staffing Amazon's Go division last month... and here's the big reveal.

There's way too much to say about this to even try to make this a complete analysis or even informative essay, so I won't try in this pass. But this change, the elimination of the checkout, may have more effect on consumer spending resistance than many of the data- and behaviorally-driven changes in retailing before it. Oh... I don't mean it will improve consumer resistance. Quite the opposite. When everything is "free," when there's no universal and formal moment of reckoning store choices with the reality of cost... we're looking at pure hindbrain to wallet spending, free of (enough) conscious, rational consideration.

Which, of course, is nirvana for retailers. That pesky resistance of consumers, their stubbornness at not making SeeWantBuy their operating principle, has vexed marketers and sellers for generations. Now, as I noted in the developing book, we're even closer to the marketing ideal of SeeBuy, with "Want" just automatic and assumed.

This is too depressing, so let's close out with an old joke I eventually worked into the book draft and will now probably relegate to a footnote.

An old Scotsman came to America and eventually found himself in a modern grocery store. Overwhelmed at the vast range of goods, he quickly began to fill his shopping cart with glee. When there was no more room, he headed for the exit, only to find his way blocked by the checkout line. "Dom!" he cried. "Ah knew there'd be a catch!"

And to some degree, we all depend on that "catch" a little. It's not uncommon to see shoppers at Target (mostly younger, some not-so, all  naive) reach the cashier with full basket, balk at the total, and slowly remove items from their order until it meets some pre-defined limit. A limit they could not seem to consider as they shopped. We can all smirk and roll our eyes at such lack of arithmetic and logic skills, but will we still be smirking when barrierless checkout becomes as common as the irritating self-checkout kiosks?

I don't know. I do know that removing the last "catch" in consumer spending represents a terrible offensive in this war, and one consumers are utterly unprepared to resist.

James Gifford (sig)

Consumers don't exist. And nothing says more about the uselessness of conventional economic theory than that.

Hi, fellow non-existee.

Consumers do not exist, except as a word and a vague deprecated class, in conventional economic thought. Oh, there are few writings dealing with the general economy that do not use the word, and there are decreasingly small niches of the field that deal increasingly with consumers as real entities, but on the whole... there 'ain't no setch animal' to most economists. Which, I understand, sounds like nonsense.

However, clear your mind and think of it this way: how are consumers represented in most economic writings and theories? As individuals? As a class with any discernible characteristics beyond ability and tendency to buy? As an active component of the system in any way?

The correct answer to the last is "yes"... but only in a fixed and passive manner.

I'll quit with the verbal fencing and put it bluntly. In nearly all economic discussions, the role of consumers is simply to be a target for... sales. It's all about sales — up, down, trending, surprising, dismal, whatever. Sales. Never a word about "purchases" or "buying." Consumers are a faceless, nameless, nearly valueless class that serves as a collection bin — or a "de-vending machine" — to balance the effect of the all-holy sale.

Does anything say more about the irrelevancy of economics to consumers (as actual, you know, individuals) than this wholly business/commerce-oriented  viewpoint? Economists don't give a rodent's patootie about the purchase or much of anything downstream from it, such as continuing costs for the buyer, or suitability of the purchase, or ability of the buyer to afford the item. No, we stop and venerate the sale. And stop there.

It's as if the backbreaking labor of slaves were only addressed as tons of coal mined, bales of cotton produced or acres of ground cleared. Oh, wait... plantations did indeed keep their books that way. Okay, it's as if factory workers were only addressed as number of iPhones or toasters or Toyotas produced. Um, hold it... of course that's how they're regarded. If the actual contribution of workers - indentured or not - is brushed aside as a meaningless collective force, it turns them into a faceless commodity... which is of course how most business, and its working tool economics, sees them.

Consumers don't even rate that highly; we have no unions, demands, compensation issues, availability issues or other direct costs. The marching drones, the frantic clock-guy in Metropolis have more humanity and regard than we do.

This revelation should really piss you off, and I hope it does.

I contend it's time for a drastic revision of economic thought, beginning with the needs and importance of consumers as individuals — and the collective needs of everyone on Earth, in terms of sustainability and quality of life, not to mention simple survival — and ending somewhere out on the fringes with corporate concerns.

As long as we remain a faceless mob holding out our bags for the proceeds of "sales," exchanging our lives to power an economic cycle of dubious worth, we will remain nearly powerless; we will be little more than our assigned role of silent, invisible economic batteries. It is time for consumers to be seen. It is time for consumers to rise.

It is time for us to go Renegade.

James Gifford (sig)

One of the most fundamental criticisms that can be leveled at Renegade Consumer is that it is contrary to nearly all conventional economic beliefs.

To which can only be said: Of course it is.

Furthermore, it can be said that the aims of Renegade Consumer undermine the basic principles of generally-accepted economic theory.

Yes, they do.

Our future as individuals, consumers, a nation and a planet is at sharp odds with conventional economic theory, and we are far past recognizing this fact. The choice is simple: either we are sacrificed in the sacred flame of economic thinking and its indispensable goal of ever-continued growth, or we sacrifice the sober nonsense of Twentieth Century economics on the trash heap of failed – or at least outmoded – thinking.

The key to understanding here is in the words “beliefs” and “theory.” Despite the heartfelt wish of its proponents, economics is not a science. Economics is composed of two things, accounting and theory. The absolute rigidity and precision that can be given the numbers and accounting and statistics is the basis on which most economists claim that their field is a science – but economic theory is never anything more than educated guesswork, prone to disruption by every butterfly effect and market tremor, and only obvious in retrospect. The inability of any consensus of even the most highly regarded minds in the field to accurately forecast economic events, other than in the most straight-line manner, is not a secret – only a particularly stylish cut of imperial clothing. Many summaries and analyses have been written on the continuing failure of economic theory to predict economic changes; success only comes to a few outliers, by luck, and to those who are rewarded when tomorrow continues like yesterday, only more so.

Economics is an important field. In most ways, it is a useful tool for monitoring and analyzing the flow of wealth in our society. But it is easy to lose sight of the massive complexity of economic systems and their tendency to be disrupted by the slightest breeze… making theories little more than hunch, hope and guesswork, no matter how distinguished the pundit or how long their string of successful guesses might be. (Lucky players are known to make ten straight passes with the dice in Las Vegas, too.)

So decisions about economic direction come down to whose guesses are better… and for whom. I contend that mainstream economics is a self-serving, self-referential spiral, in which theories and consensus are bent to fit preconceived notions, each reinforcing the other no matter how many recessions are failed to be anticipated (all fifty since WWII, according to some sources). So if Renegade Consumer starts with ideas and theories that are contradictory to mainstream thought, sometimes wildly so… it comes down to ‘cui bono’ – who benefits from these theories?

In mainstream economic theory, the benefit is to everyone… well, everyone who profits or otherwise benefits from continual growth and wealth expansion. Which can be shown to be everyone, in the trite phrasing about a rising tide lifting all boats. Bums in the street have a better life because the suits in the Street multiplied their wealth, or so it can be demonstrated with enough statistical pirouettes. What these smugly conventional notions fail to address is the cost of that increasing wealth – that, in a rude form of conservation of entities, rising wealth must come from some social, economic or ecological strip mine. And it does. We have paid for our expanding bubble of wealth in pollution, climate change, warfare (including the voracious appetite of “defense departments”), resource depletion and more… but nowhere has the ore been more costly than in human terms. To fuel this endless cycle of expansion, we have conditioned whole populations to shape their lives around producing/earning the maximum they were capable of, so that they might consume an ever-greater share of the goods fueling the expansion.

And there we have the core tenet of Renegade Consumer: that we have been generationally conditioned towards maximized fostered consumption… at the cost of far too many individual and societal options beyond those physical costs listed above.

We think it’s time to stop this madness. It’s time to free people from endless intense coercion to expend their lives in service to this mad spiral… and in doing so, solve a wide range of national and global problems stemming from the same pressure.

Which of course will cause economic collapse… by traditional interpretation. (Ask almost any economist what would happen if all wage-earners started saving ten percent of their income tomorrow… and then consider that we are advocating much steeper declines in consumer spending.)

The deflation or de-growth of the national and global economy is an integral part of Renegade Consumer theory, and it is included with the full understanding that such a thing is Armageddon by traditional economic standards… but promises salvation for us as individuals, communities, nations and a planet. Which is why we have no concern that these theories and policies are so at odds with mainstream economic theory; you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggheads.

It’s a choice between their guesswork and hunch and odds-making, with the attendant destruction of everything around us, including individual lives, for vaguely defined universal benefit (but especially that of those who directly profit from the spiral)… or our guesswork and hunch and odds-making that put individual lives, individual consumers first and can live with economic systems finding a way to adjust. It’s pitting cynical, predatory and destructive traditional thinking against fresh, humanistic, sustainable ideas.

It’s time for us to put away childish wishful thinking and mature as an economic body. It’s time to become Renegade Consumers.

At least, that’s our theory.

James Gifford (sig)


Scott Adams has spent over thirty years making fun of the way business runs in circles chasing profits at any cost... mostly costs to employee sanity, but shaking down customers for useless products and services has been integral to the humor.

In a recent week, though, Adams penned a series that ripped the façade off of marketing as thoroughly as anything I've done, and I admiringly concede he has a somewhat larger audience. The series ran from Monday, February 2 through (so far) Saturday the 7th... here's a link to the starting strip. Go read; I'll wait.

Nasty, nasty stuff and a major tip of the hat to Scott for his insight and razor wit, and for using his enormous pulpit to bully the right targets. (Yeah, I know, that's not what "bully pulpit" means. Originally, anyway.)

It does continue to bother me that this is representative of the very sharpest insight and challenge to the marketing-industrial complex... buried, lost even, in the funny pages. I appreciate the sentiments; I appreciate the serial and editorial cartoonists who focus their rage (and ours) on the manipulative system with which marketing has managed to engulf our economic and individual lives. But the days of the cartoon as weapon have pretty much passed; other than occasionally enraging an unbalanced mind - Nous Avons Charlie - searing cartoons tend to make the reader laugh, agree, feel good that they're not alone... and turn the page. The days of Thomas Nast bringing down Boss Tweed with his cartoons - which he did; Tweed was arrested in Europe because he was recognized from Nast's portrayals - are long, long gone.

Humor can be a wonderful weapon, and I try to use it intelligently and not too excessively in my efforts. But at a certain point, making fun of things defuses focus and anger more than it sharpens it; the laugh becomes a dismissal. It leads to co-option by the target and by the audience, burying the need to focus rage under a soothing blanket of "laugh and move on, nothing to see here." There is something deeply disturbing that the comics so frequently score bull's-eyes on this topic, and serious journalism and essays do not. There is no fault in using marketing and fostered consumption as a basis for humor; there is a problem when our informational media pays it so little attention. There is greater fault when, as it is, the topic is left entirely to the funnymen.

Co-option is the death of all social, economic and political movements, and the system - systems - have gotten better and better at turning aside even the most ferocious and well-aimed effort by co-opting, blunting and burying it. Along with all the other targets needing our full renegade focus and attention, the ingrained, possibly even fostered, tendency of the media to minimize consumption issues and marketing's role in them needs to be kept in our sights.

We need to laugh, or we'll go as crazy as Dilbert. But we must not let the chuckles spoil our aim.


One of the most popular maxims in the existing anti-consumerism world is "Buy Nothing." From AdBusters' annual call for "Buy Nothing Day" to various other groups that focus around the phrase to discussions about consumerism that toss it off as a verity, "Buy Nothing" has come to occupy a prominent place in the evanescent image of anti-consumerism.
Which is a pity, because it's self-cancelling nonsense.

Serious anti-consumerism is, in this time and place, an extreme stance. It is contrary to many of the basic assumptions that underlie our lives, culture and economics. To stand up in favor of anti-consumerism, to oppose the cycle of consumption, is an inherently extreme act. However, there's a difference between pointless extremism and what might be called rational extremism. There is far too much of the former in the world, and it grabs headlines and news feeds every day. The message it conveys often strongly colors the audience's view--and the color is that of negation.

It is common, for some reason, for proponents of contrary opinions to couch them in the most extreme terms--sometimes beyond extreme into the outlandish. Movement after movement and effort after effort does not reach for the reasonable, the workable or the possible, but for absurdly inflated goals: ban all cars. Dump fossil fuels. Open all national borders. Eliminate money. Eradicate cancer. Give North America back to the native population.

"buynothingshatteredBuy nothing."

It may feel good, or feel powerful, or even feel purposeful to reach for the moon in a social or civic endeavor, but setting a goal that cannot be reached is self-cancelling. It dooms the movement to a life span of essentially meaningless effort, often wasting the time, money and good will of a great many people whose contributions could otherwise achieve real and meaningful change. To stubbornly hold out for only the furthest, vastest and most difficult (or impossible) goal is to misunderstand how problems are solved, and to block a myriad of interim, iterative, constructive possibilities. Such positions are calls for an unwinnable all, or nothing--and nothing is what they will achieve.

To stand on the position "buy nothing"  is to fall into this nihilistic abyss, to be extreme for its own sake (and the sake of a few mocking headlines and other drive-by journalism). It pushes the audience's buttons, many of them the wrong ones, to no particular end. It neither educates nor entertains; it is eminently pigeonhole-sized and forgettable. Even those who are aware of their consumption excesses are not going to take away anything useful from the phrase. It is worse than a waste of time, accomplishing nothing; it is an active dilution of the more sensible goals of anti-consumerism efforts. Its senseless and sense-free noise block avenues of understanding that might actually further consumer rejection of fostered consumption.

After all, no one "buys nothing." Aside from a vanishingly small number of people who live a wholly self-sufficient life in the woods, we all buy the things that make our lives possible (and comfortable, and entertaining). Few of us have any choice but to buy food, clothing, medicine, and even entertainment. Most of us have, or choose to buy pretty much everything in our lives. There is nothing wrong with that--we are consumers by need and nature. We are buyer-sellers because, fantasy and idealization aside, a world of the self-sufficient achieves nothing except individual survival. We have a circle of mutual production-consumption because we are organized, and socialized and civilized to greater ends and purpose than staying alive and fed one more day at a time. (That this circle--cycle--is diseased and predatory is the problem, not the cycle itself.)

Oh, of course "everybody knows" what "buy nothing" is supposed to mean--don't buy crap. Buying food is perfectly okay--but buy nothing. Buying clothes is okay--but buy nothing. Buying gas for your car so you can get to school and work and the grocery and clothing stores is okay--but buy nothing. Buying a watch, a car, a video game, a bottle of wine is okay--but buy nothing. "Buy Nothing Day"? Sure--there's only 364 other days to buy. It is a patently meaningless phrase, and for all it is supposed to convey, in its extreme and exaggerated way, it is so contrary to reality that it cancels itself upon utterance. It becomes nothing more than an in-group shibboleth, a mutual wink and nod to superiority within, a silly bit of noise and blather without.

So screw "Buy Nothing"--concept, phrase and promoters. I call on organizations, groups and promoters of the anti-consumerism front to dump the phrase. AdBusters: repudiate your silly, in-joke, art-contest attachment to Buy Nothing Day in favor of a message the audience might actually hear. Everyone else: stop using this meaningless phrase as an anchor for your efforts. Find your own words that convey what you really mean; like all hobbyhorses, that wooden phrase is getting you nowhere. If you can't find pithy, effective words of your own, start with the renegade maxim "Don't Buy It"--a far more nuanced and specific call and concept. Make everything "Don't Buy It" stands for a meaningful concept for your audience.

After all, we're all fighting for pretty much the same thing. Let's fight together, and make our admittedly extreme position sound rational instead of pointless. We gain nothing by fighting for "nothing."