Throughout the last year, I’ve been increasingly troubled by a set of vague thoughts centered on the word addiction. Addiction as a concept has expanded for me, over the last few months, beyond its normal connotations, to encompass the entire consumer economy. Disturbing shows like Hoarders have contributed to my growing sense that conventional critiques of consumerism are either missing or marginalizing something central, and that addiction has something to do with it. These vague, troubling thoughts coalesced into a concrete idea a few weeks ago, when I watched this video of a hand supermodel talking about her work, in a way that I can only describe as creepy.
The concrete idea is something I call the Gollum effect. It is a process by which regular humans are Gollumized: transformed into hollow shells of their former selves, defined almost entirely by their patterns of consumption.
The Creation and Consumption of Gollum
There is a sense in which Gollum, rather than Frodo, is the central protagonist in The Lord of the Rings, since his destiny is tied to the inanimate star of the show, the One Ring. He is the only character who truly rises above the standard two-dimensional archetypes of the fantasy genre, and elevates Tolkien’s works to a near-literary status.
Gollum is a real character. He does not evoke a one-dimensional emotional response such as identification, annoyance, pity, disgust, fear, suspicion or hate. He evokes a full-spectrum response that involves all those feelings and more.
And yet paradoxically, he is in fact one-dimensional, almost as featureless as the object that holds him in thrall, the One Ring.
It is tempting to conclude that the featurelessness of the One Ring symbolizes the abstract nature of the malignancy of which it is an agent. But you can read a much deeper meaning into the Lord of the Rings if you interpret the featurelessness as symbolizing purity and refinement: in the sense of cocaine.
That Gollum is the archetypal addict is not a particularly novel reading of the character. In their parody of The Lord of the Rings, the writers of South Park turned the character of Butters into Gollum, a newly-minted porn addict, following a porn video tape through the plot, calling it his “precious,” and ultimately falling into the tape return slot at the video store (Gollum falls into the fires of Mount Doom along with the One Ring).
Gollum is a creature created, and ultimately consumed by, the One Ring. Smeagol, the ordinary living being with a single fatal flaw, is transformed into a pure pattern of addictive consumption. He sustains the ring through its lost years, and is sustained by it.
If it weren’t for the spirit-like remnants of Smeagol in his character, Gollum would be no more than a dead finger defined entirely by the ring, a ring-wearing appendage. The ring only allows the ghost of Smeagol to persist because it brings with it the capacity for cunning, deception and trickery, which it needs to further its own objectives.
The ring itself though, remains unchanged by Smeagol-Gollum, even as it transforms and consumes him. It is important to note that the One Ring does not actually destroy Gollum till its own end is imminent; it keeps Gollum alive to serve.
I want to offer you this thought as a starting point for understanding Gollumization: consumerism is not about humans consuming products. It is about products consuming humans.
Again, this is not a novel thought, but it is marginalized to the status of a joke in our discourses around consumerism. In an episode of The Simpsons, for instance, a hippie tells Principal Skinner: “Do you own the car, or does your car own you? Simplify man!”
It is rather ironic that this potent and consequential message is only heard today from an impotent and inconsequential peripheral subculture that is so predictably ineffective, nothing need be done by the forces and institutions of consumerism that it threatens. In the hands of hippies, the message reduces itself to farce.
But Gollum is not truly the sort of hollowed-out and useless addict created by something like cocaine, a product that is more predatory than parasitic, since it destroys its host prematurely. The scariest thing about Gollum is that he is just functional and lucid enough to be usefully employable within the tale. This high-functioning state of addictive collapse makes him a creature of mainstream consumer culture, rather than of the back-alley culture where we first meet him (hiding, murdering and thieving among the Goblins in subterranean caverns in The Hobbit).
The One Ring does not just drain Gollum to feed itself, the way a drug like cocaine sucks a victim dry of wealth. It also needs Gollum’s more creative and productive servitude, and for that, it needs him to be functional.
Gollum is both employee and consumer. A prosumer locked in a death embrace with a product. He is a raving fan.
What is utterly scary about Ellen Sirot, the hand model in the video, is that like Gollum, she is not a cocaine-devastated creature living a wrecked life on the margins of society. She is an employable, functional creature living at the very center of it, in the spotlight. She is a mainstream Gollumized creature, whose particular pattern of Gollumization just happens to be a little more extreme and visible than the patterns that define the rest of us.
As I watched Sirot’s Gollum-like mannerisms in the video, my hair actually stood on end. I was that creeped out by her, as she caressed her own hands lovingly throughout her conversation with Katie Couric. I fully expected her to say, “My Precioussss” at some point. I found the video via a post on kottke.org, in which Jason Kottke notes:
This is a really strange and fascinating video…Sirot is constantly performing with her hands but it’s also like she hasn’t got any hands, not functional ones anyway. She holds them like atrophied T. Rex arms!
Sirot is a poster-Gollum for consumerism. I expected she is a leading and discerning consumer of hand-care products, which must help feed what appears to be a narcissistic obsession with her own hands, that goes well beyond pragmatic concern for her means of income.
The economy that produces those hand-care products has found a larger, life-consuming role for her. One that requires reducing her not just to her hands, but to a single aspect of her hands: their camera-friendliness. You and I aren’t as different from her as you might think. She is a fully-realized Gollum, whose special talents attract special attention. Her ring demands her extreme services under the glare of studio lights. You and I are lesser Gollums; what saves us is not strength of will on our parts, but the fact that we are just not useful enough for our rings to completely possess.
Watch the video. Sirot’s hands seem like lifeless cul de sacs within which her humanity is trapped. She refers to her hands as “elite Olympic athletes” (“my athletesssess!!?”), but unlike say, a pianist’s hands, her hands are not instruments through which she can express her entire human nature. Her fingers are the bars of a gilded cage. As she says later in the interview, her life is all about constraints and saying “no” to the merely human. Forget playing the piano with her “elite athlete” hands; she can’t do the simplest things that the rest of us take for granted, like twisting open bottle caps, pushing elevator buttons, or picking up things.
The only spark of humanity I saw in the entire interview was a bit of mischievous, self-deprecating humor: she noted how ironic it was that her hands frequently feature in commercials for dishwashing products, but she cannot afford to actually risk that most mundane of household chores in her own life. In fact, she wears gloves all day. I had assumed, based on the Seinfeld episode where I first heard about hand models, that this was just comedic exaggeration. Apparently not.
But like I said, you and I are not that far removed from Ellen Sirot.
Combinatorial Consumption and Gollumization
The sheer variety of things that we consume obscures and moderates, but does not entirely prevent, our collective Gollumization. The subsuming envelope of consumption behaviors we adopt helps each of us sustain an illusion of fully-expressed and uniquely individual humanness. As a line in a recently-popular song goes, “I am wearing all my favorite brands, brands, brands.”
Put us all together, and you get what we call mainstream culture. What separates us from the fully-realized Gollums is that we mostly lack the talents to deserve complete possession. Our very mediocrity as food, with respect to the devouring appetites of the products that choose us, saves us. Each of our consumption behaviors feeds on us every day, but slowly enough that we can heal ourselves and achieve a fragile stalemate with the forces of complete Gollumization.
But the equilibrium state falls well short of “fully-human.”
The apparent variety and uniqueness in our personalities is as illusory as the apparent variety in what we consume. This illusory variety in our consumption homogenizes us, while supplying each of us with the raw material we need, to construct illusory notions of our own uniqueness.
Take the choices offered by the food industry for instance: permutations and combinations of a few pure and highly-refined (a lot of them corn-based) ingredients, all designed to hook our three main addiction circuits that crave salt, simple sugars and fat respectively. It doesn’t matter whether you are addicted to burgers, pizza, french fries or chips (my particular poison). To the extent that you don’t cook your own meals from scratch, you have been partially Gollumized by the food industry.
Our food choices are only a subset of our overall mode of consumption, which I call combinatorial consumption. Combinatorial consumption reduces the universe of human potential to a deeply-impoverished ghost of itself; a potentially infinite range of creative consumption behaviors reduced to paint-by-numbers consumption. Our lives are about choosing within the confines of a giant macro version of the Starbucks drink-construction decision tree. The dizzying, but finite variety on offer, helps distract us from the general impoverishment of what’s on the decision tree, with respect to the unbridled bounty of nature that is not on it.
We live in a cartoon universe where Claritas PRIZM psychographics categories have morphed from partial description of a population of human beings to a nearly-complete, Procrustean prescription for the construction of a universe of Gollums.
Within the realm of food consumption, we are prisoners of what Michael Pollan calls nutritionism: a highly-legible combinatorial food consumption universe reductively captured in “Nutrition Information” labels.
Real food is simply so time-consuming to prepare that we cannot be allowed to indulge in it too much, lest it steal time from our reductive roles as crank-widget producers. The widget-cranker is necessarily a frozen-meal-eater. Only true free agents, like my friend Erik Marcus, who have chosen to trade their talents for time instead of money, can actually afford to eat real food routinely (Erik is responsible for some of the finest, and cheapest, home-made food that I’ve ever eaten; his recipes for vegan chili and japonica rice with stir-fried kale are to die for).
For the rest of us, real food is an occasional luxury.
To the extent that his value as a producer lies in a few simple and optimal motions dictated by time-and-motion studies, like Gollum’s limited repertoire of tricks, the widget-cranker’s consumption of food must be imprisoned within the Nutrition Information box. A marginal market for heirloom tomatoes, on the edges of the three-dimensional salt-sugar-fat universe, is all that can be tolerated, to allow him to retain a sense of connection to the natural.
For the most part the widget-cranker must eat, not food, but what Pollan calls “processed food-like substances.” Functionally, he is not actually distinguishable from the Mad-Cow cannibalistic humans of The Matrix.
Thanks to established critiques like The Organization Man, we have come to understand, and partially defend against, the forces that map us to our reductive roles as producers in cookie-cutter jobs. We can turn to things like Dilbert, or to my own modest contribution, the Gervais Principle, for succor. There are survival strategies both inside and outside the workplace.
This is due to the liberating and self-actualizing effects of even the meanest kind of widget-cranking production work. All but the clueless retain their humanity as long as they are actually producing. Gollum, recall, remains Smeagol only to the extent that the ring needs his producer-skills, the cunning and craft of his forgotten Smeagol-hood. That little foothold might have been enough for Gollum to claw his way back to existential health, in a different telling of the story.
Now, not all products and services are like the abominations that are fattening America up for slaughter, but the point is that the cheapest stuff at the heart of mainstream culture almost entirely comprises Gollumizing, pure-and-refined products and services, starting with the eternally-youthful Barbies, Kens and Ellens (now available in different pure-and-refined racial flavors) acting out the life scripts that teach us how to consume the rest of what’s on offer.
What makes these core products such a potent force is that their low cost makes them the stable attractors for the weak and at-risk. If you stumble even slightly on the periphery, where you can be close to luxuries like farmers markets that can serve as life-preservers, you will spiral down into the hell of Gollumhood, optimizing calories-per-dollar along the way. Answers to the question, “what does it feel like to be poor?” reveal the horrifying fact that pop-tarts are the calorie-optimal food for the poor.
So heirloom tomatoes on the periphery (the butt of another Simpsons joke) notwithstanding, addiction to the pure-and-refined is at the heart of consumerism. And this is so uncontroversial that even well-intentioned entrepreneurs uncritically declare that their goal is to create “addictive” products and services that can attract a small core group of “raving superfans” who can organize (if you pay them a sub-minimum wage via games and coupons), an inchoate crowd into a synchronized raving tribe.
So the world of combinatorial consumption that Gollumizes our lives as consumers is a more complete prison than the world of work that imprisons us as producers. True escape is nearly impossible, except through extreme acts of rebellion, self-imposed exile, and marginalized live-off-the-land self-sufficiency.
In our consumption behaviors, unlike our production behaviors, there is no natural source of redemption to be found. The world of combinatorial consumption provides a pseudo-richness that is so superficially close to the richness of nature in fact, that one of the survival strategies in the world of work, loser-dom, actually relies on discovering a sufficiently interesting pattern of Gollumizing consumption outside the workplace. This is the person who endures cubicle farm days, daydreaming about the slightly richer pleasures of (say) football-fandom on evenings and weekends.
And if you decide to fight Gollumization from within, you must venture dangerously close to the thin line dividing those fighting for their souls from those who have already lost it.
So let’s talk about extreme couponers and hoarders.
Couponers and Hoarders
On one side of the line separating those fighting for their souls and those who have lost it, you have the deadly game of existential chess played by the protagonists of Extreme Couponing, who exult every time they game the system and manage to buy $1000 worth of groceries for $20.
These are people who spend all their spare time collecting, organizing, investing in, and analyzing their coupon collections, to mount weekly attacks on grocery stores, like card-counting blackjack players at casinos. This is what Gollumized raving-fandom looks like.
For the most part, these are not resellers or rational participants in a supply chain; they literally stock up on 150 years worth of hand soap and deodorant. As with the Sirot video, there were a few glimpses of humanity in the Extreme Couponing show (catch a rerun if you can). In one rare, human moment, an extreme couponer managed to score thousands of boxes of cereal essentially free, which he then gave away to the homeless.
The lives of couponers are apparently about gaming the Big, Bad marketing machine. One extreme couponer constantly made references to chess, beating the house, and gambling with a strategy that allows him to win every time. He conveniently discounted his hours of preparatory labor as a fun hobby. He clearly viewed the marketing machinery of his grocery store as an adversary to be beaten, and himself as some sort of hacker.
You might wonder then, why does the marketing machine tolerate such acts of sedition? Is it only because they are not worth the cost of completely stamping out, and are unlikely to grow into wide-spread revolt? Perhaps occasional patching of particular exploits in the arbitrary universe of couponing is enough for the marketing machine to stay one step ahead in the arm’s race?
This seductive analysis, and the implied analogy to hackers attacking a computer system, is deeply misguided. When hackers compromise a valuable site via an undocumented exploit, they can steal or cause millions or even billions of dollars worth of damage. The process is in no way controlled, let alone legitimized, by the site owners.
By contrast, the extreme couponers, if you count the value of their time, basically make a modest living doing below-minimum-wage marketing work for the coupon-based marketing universe that welcomes them as raving fans.
From the point of view of the stores, far from being hostile opponents in some asymmetric game of chess, these are merely cheap and committed marketers. They are encouraged to model, in extreme ways, the very couponing behaviors that the marketing machine wants others to emulate in less extreme ways.
Which is exactly what happens. So long as you and I casually clip and use coupons, inspired by the extreme couponers in our midst, the grocery stores still comes out on top. If the extreme couponers’ leadership behavior were to actually lead to large-scale loss-driving sedition by too many customers, the store could easily staunch the losses overnight, by making minor changes to coupon-redemption rules.
The coupon-based raving-fan gambling industry is merely a less-regulated version of Las Vegas. Instead of the temptations of low-probability jackpots, the house strategy for coming out on top merely relies on making profitable couponing so difficult, boring and time-consuming, that only the destitute or obsessive, in possession of more time than money and underutilized sunk-cost home warehouse space, would attempt it.
If you need proof that this is a gambling industry rather than a hacker subculture, you need only look at the support the stores provide to extreme couponers. In the show, the store employees actually applaud when the extreme couponers check out with their ridiculous hauls. Letting a hard-working couponer walk away with “winnings” of $5000 worth of groceries for $200 is basically cheap marketing. The store makes more than its money back through the cheaply-inspired loyalty of the less-disciplined casual couponers, who halfheartedly mimic the extreme Gollums.
If you want more validation, simply visit a Vegas casino and wait for someone to win reasonably big. You will see the exact same applause and encouragement from the staff. And the applauding front-line service employees in both cases aren’t faking it. They genuinely believe the little guy has “beaten the house” rather than provided it with cheap marketing. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you should be able to figure out why the applause is genuine (hint: losers).
On the other side of the dividing line, you have the hollow shells of human beings profiled on Hoarders. These are human beings whose patterns of addictive consumption have reduced their homes to toxic garbage dumps. Literally. The interventions are triggered by the threat of having their residential properties — you can hardly call them homes — condemned by health inspectors. Where extreme couponers carefully stockpile supplies in their garages under relatively sanitary conditions, the hoarders have homes full of refuse, decay, cockroaches and mold.
One episode almost made me throw up: it featured an elderly woman, a real-life Miss Havisham, who began buying dolls to cope with some traumatic life event. She lived in a house that was packed with thousands and thousands of dolls. In all my years of television watching, I have seen few creepier scenes than this one: the interventionists gingerly parading her dolls past her, one at a time, allowing her to make individual keep/give away decisions, letting her have just enough of a sense of control over the intervention to avoid triggering a full-blown psychotic episode.
Here is what should worry you: both the extreme couponers and the hoarders map better, conceptually, to the center of our consumerist world than to the margins. The margins are for drop-out exiles who have managed to flee sufficiently far away that they can live semi-redeemed human lives. Couponers and hoarders, by contrast, straddle the event horizon of the black hole at the very heart of things.
And around the black hole, sandwiched in an annular ring between the full-blown Gollums and the exiles, is the mainstream world you and I inhabit. Not far enough out to have escaped, not close enough to have been torn apart and assimilated like couponers and hoarders.
The mainstream world, as I said, is characterized by the reassuring faux-variety that stands in for diversity, within which individual uniqueness is replaced by the faux-uniqueness induced by a sufficiently rare combination of consumption choices.
This is a universe within which your doppelganger is not an eerie existential twin with whom you might share a mystic bond, but merely that hard-to-find person who also happens to live at the intersection of a Coke-over-Pepsi, McDonalds-over-Burger King, DC-over-Marvel and Nike-over-Reebok.
Rather curiously, the Harry Potter series manages to incorporate both kinds of connection in the relationship between Harry and Voldemort: the mystic connection created by Harry’s scar, and the more prosaic one created by the twin phoenix feathers in their respective wands, from the same phoenix.
Anyday now, I expect to see a doppelganger app on Facebook based on “Likes.” It will likely be named “phoenix feather.”
When that happens, the black hole at the center of our universe, now equipped with a social-graph fishing net, will begin gaining mass at an accelerating rate, drawing more of us into the embrace of subterranean Social Gollumization, caught up in some surreal world of addictive, mobile-app-based coupon-trading games.
From Customers to Consumer
In a rather popular post of mine from a while back, I derived, from Druckerian first principles, a definition of a customer.
A customer isn’t a human being. A customer is a novel and stable pattern of behavior.
I have since reused that definition in other popular posts, which have served to validate its soundness. But with each new and successful post that rests on that definition, I become more uncomfortable about its implications.
When I came up with the definition, I finessed its obviously de-humanizing implications with the idea that it was merely a functional definition that relied on an aspect of the underlying human being. The whole, I allowed myself to believe, was still fully human, and greater than the isolated stable behaviors of interest to the marketer.
I now believe that is a deeply disingenuous stance, based on a perverse assumption that combinatorial consumption of a sufficient variety of products and services is equivalent to fully-experienced humanity.
I believe that the definition of customer, unfortunately implies another definition: of an abject inhabitant of the macro-economy called a consumer:
A consumer is a human being reduced to the sum total of the behaviors that define his various customer-roles in relation to the products and services s/he consumes.
This ideal addict of an abstract economic process (the One Ring is perhaps shopaholism) is also the perfect Gollum.
While each business is morally responsible for the individual behavior – the customer role – that it creates, the problem is that no one product or service can be deemed culpable for the creation of the emergent sub-human: the consumer.
Each business, in codifying the microeconomic behaviors that define its “customer” contributes to making the market as a whole more reductively legible, in the sense of James Scott. We become, as I have said, our psychographic personas, defined by our “Likes” rather than our likes.
Is there any kind of escape that does not involve couponing on the edge of hoarding-madness, or log-cabin survivalism?
If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I’ve been inching reluctantly towards this contrarian position with respect to prevailing marketing orthodoxy (especially the uncritical, unironic and frothy 2.0 kind). I have been reluctant to talk openly about this viewpoint, because I know a lot of you are believers in the raving fan/raving tribe school of marketing, and I know you try hard to view your customers as humans, even as you think about how to “acquire” and “retain” them.
In my own marketing work (of products that I hope liberate rather than enslave, including this blog), I have been extremely reluctant to engage in raving fan/raving tribe tactics.
On this blog in particular, I have immediately disengaged from anyone who shows any signs of becoming a true raving fan (and there have been a couple whose obsessive and uncritical consumption of my writing has bordered on stalking). If marketing discipline is about being willing to fire your customers, I am a terrible marketer: I fire my best customers instead of my worst ones.
I do not want sub-human addicts around me or anything I help market, let alone entire zombie-tribes of them. Perhaps I will live to regret this decision. Or perhaps there is a sustainable economic model that does not involve zombie-tribes at all.
There’s a good deal more to be said here. When you look at the other side of the free market, at entrepreneurs and capitalists in particular, very troubling questions arise. Starting with this one: within the Lord of the Rings metaphor, what do “Dark Lord” characters like Sauron really want?
So the ideas in this post are threatening to snowball into yet another series (these serieses consumes us! my precious!), which I may or may not continue, depending on the reactions to this piece.