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Cataloguing Desire (2014)

The other day I tried to buy chart paper and I couldn’t and it made me sad.

I was in an art supply store (which will go nameless because really it’s not their fault that they didn’t have chart paper), looking mostly for things-that-are-not-chart-paper. Seeing the stacks of former tree media, I realized that chart paper is exactly what I needed for an ongoing project.

There were lots of different kinds of paper there. Coloured paper. Watercolour paper. Thick paper. Thin paper. Cardstock. Lined paper. Small quad paper. Paper paper paper.

No chart paper. I left, defeated, with a pine artboard and a piece of Plexiglas. It was a weird day.

As I sulked in the sun on the way from Curry’s (OK I’m the worst it was them they don’t have any chart paper), I was struck by the fact that a hundred years ago, even fifty, someone could go to a store and reasonably expect that 90% of the things they might possibly want to buy wouldn’t be available.

Constructed differently, that person probably had an imagination when it came to retail that was a hell of a lot narrower than it would be now, where Amazon laughs at us with ten thousand different entries for ramen.

There is a concept in linguistics/philosophy called linguistic determinism, on which I am anything but an expert, but from what I understand, it suggests that our language and the terms we use determine and limit our thought processes. I wonder if there’s something similar here, where the objects we’re familiar with regularly limit our imagination and decision making in terms of what we might buy later. A kind of salesy Sapir-Whorf.

I can only assume that if you walked into a store in Toronto in 1914, you wouldn’t be disappointed that they didn’t have three different brands of ramen. You wouldn’t be disappointed that they didn’t have ramen. You wouldn’t know what ramen was.

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The idiom ‘meat and potatoes’ is probably appropriate here in thinking about the retail imagination of the early 20th century. We often use it a bit derisively to describe someone whose taste is traditional and simple. The reason it’s traditional, though, is because, traditionally, you could go to your general store or corner store and you could buy meat and you could buy potatoes and probably not a whole lot else. If there was a thing you needed and couldn’t buy at your general store, you would have a craftsperson make it just for you.

This is obviously a bit of a simplification; there wasn’t a switch flipped on this kind of mental listing of objects where suddenly we had a new set of thoughts that previously didn’t exist. This retail imagination has been gradually expanding since retail in a modern conception began. In the fifteenth century, books were sold by catalogue. In the seventeenth, seeds. By the nineteenth century, national postal services were a thing in a lot of places and so there was a proliferation of mail-order retail. Sears throughout North America, and Eaton’s in Canada, were institutions for a century; I remember getting the Sears Wishbook as a kid at Christmas time and man did it ever expand what I thought was possible in terms of stuff.

This vast skeletal library of things-to-buy was given a perverse kind of life by advertising. Smiling men in Arrow collars printed on cheap paper with garish ink told us that objects weren’t just situated in their utility to you; they were situated in a constructed social and cultural context that made them objects of desire or status necessity. Of course, the significance of objects has stretched beyond their utility for as long as we’ve had objects. The example that pops most readily into my mind is any kind of jewelry: a crown, a pendant, a gold t-shape pendant. Advertising that is pervasive and smart and often even beautiful, however, represents a subtle shift in the stakeholders determining what is good and how those messages are targeted and the scale at which this is done.

Central to science and technology studies, the history of science, anthropologies of technology, etc. is the question of whether social/cultural change drives technological change or the inverse (it probably belongs in the same box as nature/nurture, chicken/egg, and ‘is this really the same green you’re seeing, maaaan?’).

The rise of a different kind of retail imagination in the 19th and 20th centuries is a fabulous example of this kind of tension. Did rising standards of living and wealth, as well as changing norms around displays of wealth, drive the desire for a wider range of goods and therefore these infrastructures for advertising those goods? Or did the infrastructure enable these changes?

It’s hard to say, I think, in terms of how and why my grandparents learned to buy what they bought.

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I mentioned Amazon earlier and I’d like to return to this leviathan because I think it represents a really crucial inflection point in the history of this retail imagination, and it represents a rare instance where, perhaps, infrastructural/technological change drove like a freight train into social/cultural change. Just-in-time manufacturing, next-day delivery, and the networking of an unbelievable number of suppliers represent a new kind of retail future. This outstretched set of futures is one of nearly endless choice, and if the promises of things like 3D printing are fulfilled, that ‘nearly’ might evaporate to near nothingness.

So, as a result, our retail imagination expands in a way that would have been unimaginable to people even a generation or two ago. If we think of ‘retail imagination’ as a combination between the structure of ‘retail’ and the agency of ‘imagination’, it was retail that was the limiting factor in the past; that is, we could probably imagine somewhat more than we could buy. Perhaps now is the first time that this differential is reversed, where what we can buy outstrips our ability to imagine it.

I like the analogy of information and information technology more broadly in explaining how perhaps technology steamrolled culture here. Imagine a large reference library in the late 20th century. Let’s use the University of Toronto library system as an example (it’s a bit of a stretch, because what I’m about to quote is a present-day set of stats, already warped by IT shifts). According to their website, they have “12 million volumes in 341 languages, 1,500,000 electronic resources in various formats, 28,000 linear metres of archival material” and a whole whack of data, but to be honest, that’s not what I’m interested in so much here.

This is a large number of things, but it’s finite, and probably you could, in theory, familiarize yourself with the entire catalogue of the university (although not the contents of each volume). It might take more time than any rational human being would want to spend, but you could do it, and once you got on top of it, you could probably stay on top of it, reading new records faster than the librarians can create them.

Now imagine you’re bumming along circa 2000. You are sitting in the library, having just finished reading every single record in their catalogue. You probably have few friends, but hey you now know every book in the library and that’s always proven popular at parties. The librarians applaud (quietly, more quiet than golf fans), but ask you to shave off your levitical beard before you touch another book. They also say they have a present for you, to celebrate your completion of the task. Oh boy are they excited. It’s a black plastic brick. THINKPAD, it says on top. Funny name, you think. Plugged into the side of it is a blue plastic cord of some kind.

You open it. You die immediately of information overload or a computer virus because back in the late 90s this is probably something The Media would say you could get from computers.

You now have the internet. Or the Internet. Or the Information Superhighway. Or the Net. Or the Web. The librarians have forgotten you and are now descending into a long flamewar on which is the right term. ‘Hitler’, they yell at each other. You should take this as a sign of the trouble you’re getting yourself into, but you don’t.

Now, you’re plugged into a terminal that, circa 2000, had about 70 million allocated domains. A thing to keep in mind is the fact that each of these domains possibly has multiple pages, and they aren’t always easy to find. You start reading, but there is always more. By the following January, you’re up to 110 million. A year later, 147 million. By January 2004, 233 million. You can’t possibly read fast enough to index all of these pages by yourself. Even if you got to the end of the list, between 2012 and 2013, they were accumulating at a rate of about 200,000 per day.

Okay end of analogy. I think that products are probably added to sites like Amazon at a much slower rate than domains are added to the internet. But, Amazon alone has approximately 230 million products, according to this random guy’s estimate in 2013 (if you have a better source, get at me). This article goes on to indicate that Amazon UK has 132 million, and Amazon Germany 118 million. The list goes on. This is just Amazon. As of March 2014, JD.com, China’s largest online retailer by volume of sales, had 40.2 million SKUs. Alibaba is similarly huge. They have 1.3 million suppliers. One factoid I dug up states that, for their Aliexpress service, 40,000 suppliers offered six millions SKUs. That’s 150 for each supplier. Even a tenth of that for the service as a whole suggests 19 million product listings. If each supplier offers half of those 150 SKUs on average, we’re looking at almost 100 million SKUs.

It’s mindboggling, and that’s without even imagining how it grows each day, how it changes as products are withdrawn or adjusted or rebranded. Effectively there’s no way you could ever know everything that’s being sold. Beyond that, you can reasonably assume that everything you might want to be buy can be bought somewhere on the internet. This is a probabilistic argument, I suppose; there are bound to be specific counter-examples. But I would imagine that luck is on your side were you to try and find something. Chris Anderson, formerly of Wired, actually wrote a whole book on this ‘long tail’, whereby companies succeed selling small quantities of a huge range of products1.

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So there it is. We’ve got this retail imagination that’s expanded beyond the point of being practically knowable or quantifiable in any kind of human sense.

Reckoning with what that means for people and for families and cities and nations seems like an important but daunting task. Sketching out a few immediate implications is maybe as far as I can get here [this essay is already a billion words long].

I have in my possession a set of two tables from my grandfather. They were built during the war from appropriated white oak from a stretch of land in Welland, Ontario where a steel plant was built. There is a warm glow in the varnishes which makes the blemishes look almost beautiful, even the cigarette burns along the edges.

These tables are heirlooms. I wonder, though, if my children will care about them in the same way that I do. There is a part of me that is concerned for material histories and how they might fare when there's such pressure to buy new things. One thing that strikes me is that these tables are obviously imbued with family history and an emotional resonance; at one point, though, they were just tables. If we throw out all of our 'just tables' in favour of new ones, if we are constantly incrementing novelty, perhaps we stand to lose some of those object threads between generations.

These cast-off just tables are piling up somewhere, too. That worries me. The ratcheting up of goods is a concern, but I think that just as worrying is the supporting infrastructural systems that go along with that. Planes, trains, and massive container ships, all generating vast emissions and consuming fuel. That's maybe one of the most interesting hidden costs of this. You just see the brown Amazon box on your porch, not the three-week, multi-modal journey it took to get you. Obviously there are economies of scale, but still we're talking about so many of these costly journeys every day, with more and more piling on as people buy more things.

This brings me to what I think is a reasonable second question: where does the retail imagination fall in the scope of the capitalist project?

My first gut reaction is to say that it’s a triumph probably. Having a global market of people who know there’s always the possibility of something they don’t have, or something that’s newer, or a better fit, is an endless well of new sales. For a system that demands constant growth, this seems like a pretty important achievement at the level of worldview. The freedom to buy and the full articulation of that freedom into something limitless would have to be a cause for celebration in the free-market west.

I can’t help but feel that this victory carries its own seeds of destruction though.

There’s a set of philosophical ideas that I’ve been reading about lately called Accelerationism. Basically, it evolved as a political response to Capitalism that, rather than advocating strategies of resistance to capitalism and its alienation, advocated acceleration of the same. My understanding so far is that the Accelerationists more or less said, let’s bring it on: increase the elements of capitalism that are the most dehumanizing and alienating, and in doing so eventually the thing will unravel of its own unsustainable momentum.

I wonder if maybe this is where the retail imagination goes eventually: we have so many possible options that we feel turned off the idea of buying any of them. There’s a set of ideas from a book aptly called ‘The Paradox of Choice’ that suggests limiting consumer choice might reduce anxiety in shoppers. In interface design, there’s a similar principle, Hick’s Law, which suggests that reducing the number of menu choices reduces the amount of time it will take a person to make a decision (and therefore reduces the possibility they’ll bounce). I’m facing a buying crisis right now, in fact: I’m trying to decide whether to keep an old bike that is beat up and possibly too small for me, or buy one of two new bikes that are on sale, or buy a used bike that is a better fit and overhaul it. As a result of this, I’m buying nothing.

Perhaps this is part of why there’s a growing market for things like the 100-mile and artisanal things. Maybe it goes beyond what are ostensibly questions of health/sustainability/quality and enters a realm of pure anxiety. By limiting our choices to what’s high quality and invested with time and energy locally, we reduce the possibility of needing to ‘upgrade’ or feel inadequate about our purchases. Maybe in this is the opening for a smaller, more local kind of capitalism that is less destructive and less global. I like the idea of digital networks not for scaling systems but for making them more resilient, tight-knit, within reach.

This idea of handmadeness in the retail imagination sparks a third train of thought: the role of the designer.

There's the possibility of designing smart shopping systems for the problem of too much choice. Things that register what you’re low on or what you’ve been looking at lately and what your financial situation is, and maybe they just automagically order them for you and you no longer think about making purchases except for big ones. I don’t want this but I can see why people might, and it would require really thoughtful design to stop it from being creepy.

Standing in opposition to this are two other possible roles that design/Design/designers might play.

We might see designers play a more significant role in advocating for more local and higher quality kinds of production. An Etsy revolution, perhaps. Designers rejecting the allure of mass production and instead setting their sites on small-batch, hyper-local, and fabricate-on-demand kinds of things.

This is not a future I get terribly excited about. It’d be great to have nicer, handmade stuff, but the I think there’s still a need to think in terms of scale/reproduction when it comes to design. Critical minds bent towards this challenge are maybe more important with this unprecedented glut of things (a thing that is interesting is the role that designers might play as teachers and sources of community knowledge for people who do want to produce locally).

What I am excited about is the way that designers might serve as the ethical guardians of production. Conscientious refusals in service of producing less crap, in the same way that sometimes a doctor’s job is to tell you that a procedure is unnecessary, or that the most humane thing to do is to pull the plug. No, you don’t need to produce a 27th cosmetic variety of your widget. A mature, sober smack-upside-the-head-as-a-service.

(there is one additional role that I would like to see designers play, and that is playing a more active role in making stuff weirder. If we’re going to have tons of options, lets have fewer of them be bland please)

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When I imagine the most likely set of futures in 2050, I don’t see this retail imagination being any less of a presence. Designers will continue to be complicit in the broadening of our range of possible purchases. Capitalism will likely continue to provide us with limitless buying options and we’re likely to keep shelling out.

I think we probably do need to think critically about what we buy, and how our cognitive and imaginative processes shape that decision-making. I don’t really have the answers for how we adjust those trajectories and how we do so in ways that either aren’t fundamentally disruptive or else are disruptive in ways that make us happier/healthier/stronger/stranger. My gut says that designers are important, but also that parents are, and teachers, and maybe even doctors and religious leaders. Systems change, is always hard.

I’m going to have to write this out, I think. I’m going to need some chart paper.

1.An early reader of this essay raised the argument that ‘back in the day’, there were just as many products available, but that the network was smaller and shaped differently, and that if you’d had a Union of General Stores knotting together all the suppliers, instead of one store with maybe a few suppliers and a few wholesalers, then you’d have something resembling the current state and so what’s the big deal anyways.

To this I say: that’s the whole point. Networks and network change are some of the most significant change factors in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Beyond just larger and more widespread networks, there are two reciprocal processes that make things fundamentally different from how they were or could have been 100 years ago. First, people are able to access a wider variety of goods, providing a broader range of choices, and ultimately reinforcing the sense of entitlement towards those choices. Second, suppliers are able to reach niche audiences that might otherwise be geographically disparate in ways that make them worth producing for, when previously, it wouldn’t have been a viable option (the long tail). These two factors in combination underline how this is a fundamental shift rather than just a question of simple organizational principles.