The Gollum Effect

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.

Gollumization Showcased

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, 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?

Beyond Gollumhood

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.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. LOL, Yeah, consumerism sucks but the end of consumerism doesn’t taste that good either.
    It could be that “consume or not consume” is not really an interesting question to investigate, because at each opposite end of the spectrum what can you do about it?
    Nothing of much import…

  2. cool thoughts..i liked how you used lord of the rings which anyone can relate to..i hope more people see this and see themselves and de-golumize themselves.

  3. cool, everyone can related to mordor and frodo!

  4. I guess it’s time for me to be fired.

  5. Did you mention your post on humans as the short-buffer/long-buffer switches? Facebook, Twitter, news aggregators all have us little rats hitting the reload button for our little pellet of reconstituted news nuggets and inanities. It is far more dangerous than chemical addiction, because it doesn’t debilitate to the point where we’re completely useless, but, like a nicely-judging parasite, Gollumizes just enough to render us still-usable.

    The hand model thing… I had no idea George Costanza was playing it so close to reality.

    The broad topic is the parasitization of Man. Consumer goods are actually pretty straightforward – their vectors are superstimuli which ride on age-old biological imperatives: the craving for sugars, status and sex.

    More interesting by far are the pure-information parasites which – while they might use biological toe-holds – make you act flagrantly in opposition to your biological interests. They’re more akin to neuro-parasites which make snails and crickets behave in such a way as to get eaten. Every culture has stories of the conversion of Man to Dharma Automaton, in line with their development of state institutions.

    • Even if the hand model video was a fake, it’s creepy because it’s so believable and because, alas, we can all relate.

      The process of becoming Gollum-ized focuses exclusively on the losers, perhaps drawing a parallel to the proletariat petit-bourgousie, while the goods & services producing haute-bourgousie capitalists retain control with their evil marketing schemes to dupe the masses. However, couldn’t the same process of Gollum-ization be applied to the sociopaths too? Sociopaths/Darklords can just as easily fall into consumer patterns, the difference being that their consumables are more liquid and perhaps better described as “power” or “influence”-consumables.

      Looking forward to seeing where you take this.

  6. Glubbdrubb says

    First,I apologies for my poor phrasing…

    Is it possible to be fully “self-actualized” and yet be indistinguishable of the mainstream consumer?

    Does understanding the full affects of an addiction change anything?

    • This is a really interesting question which I think at the heart is, “What makes an individual?” Is it the choices he/she makes, or the motivation behind those choices?

      As we become more defined by our consumer choices it’s so easy for products to become substitutes for individuality rather than indicative of it. If I like Lady Gaga because she really speaks to me, is that any different or better than liking her just because she’s popular?

      I think Venkat made a really good point that escapes most people watching those shows, which is that the difference between the hoarders and regular viewers is just one of degree. We all do it to some extent, except the ostracized weirdos who exclude themselves from society. So who is it better to be like?

      Very though provoking!

      • Understanding normal behaviour which is in the blind spot of convenience in the medium of its pathological extremes is not a novel approach. The revolutionary will attempt to go one step further and explain why the apparently normal is also sick – Marxists did this for about 150 years – whereas the liberal / bourgeois will seek for a dietology and best practices in the “wrong life” ( Adorno ).

        Following Adorno implicitly, not explicitly ( he had surely nothing but contempt for those who calibrate the consumer and compassion with their victims ) the good consumers are good/critical readers or listeners who don’t avoid severity. Neither are they do-it-yourself makers nor disengaged with meaning and interpretation. This doesn’t lead to a system change but to subtle distinctions within it. Adorno was a left bourgeois after all.

        If I like Lady Gaga because she really speaks to me, is that any different or better than liking her just because she’s popular?

        Doesn’t it suffice to like a few of those people who like her?

      • “If I like Lady Gaga because she really speaks to me, is that any different or better than liking her just because she’s popular? ”

        Perhaps, but I feel like this path has also been co-opted by the machine. Those who might create opinions for their own sakes are hooked by the hunt for “authenticity.” Being “real” or “more real” becomes another product that you must spend time and money to seek out. Independent becomes just another label (I liked them before they were popular) and product to buy. Your preferences are redirected and couched in the language of demographics. If you like something it’s because marketing told you it was cool. If you dislike something it’s because marketing told you that you were cool.

  7. Just curious, are you a David Foster Wallace fan?

    • I got about a quarter of the way through “Infinite Jest” before I gave up, but I have managed to finish several of his non-fiction pieces, including his famous “Consider the Lobster” one.

      I am flattered that you free associated your way from this piece to Wallace, whether or not it was in a good way :) While I haven’t had time to finish his fiction, I am definitely in awe of his extraordinary ear for language. Pity he died so young.

      Incidentally, Erik, who I mentioned in the post, introduced me to DFW’s writings.

  8. A good run up of the consumer as Gollum (Tolken version, that is) and the addict as consumer/consumer addict of Horders and those clippers (full disclosure I don’t own a Teevee but have seen the ads for the programes). Having had a parent who made dolls for collectors as you discribed… yes, imagine wanting to throw up for much of your childhood… but, ahem, I digress.. I had a thought some time ago that is not fully mattured but I alikened the “consumer” not as replacing “customer” but replacing “comrade” with “consumer” (inspired by a subway announcement calling us halpess riders stuck in the tunnel “customers” rather than “passengers” – the later term implying the real thing, that we had no choice in our options). I propose that the identity implied by (at least the Russian and Central European use of “comrade”) is how we (Americans/Westerners?) view our identities, no longer class affiliated but looking at what we can buy, and then identifying with that. The dollar store makes the poor feel rich, not because they need the crap sold, but that when you walk in, you know you can afford everything or to buy too much soap at once. Anyway, maybe there is something since while many of us talk about “consumer society” and all the ills that come from it, I find an intelectual framework to understand this to be lacking. I will, myself, play with your ideas in my mind… But, not as a fanatic fanboy…..

  9. Brian Slesinsky says

    I find myself resisting this analysis. We are not our supply chain. Artists shop at artist supply stores, but that doesn’t make them merely art supply consumers. Musicians buy musical instruments, but that doesn’t make them merely music store consumers. The shopkeeper might see them this way, but that’s because he or she is focusing on a brief moment of a person’s life – the reductiveness is at least partially in the observation and analysis based on a myopic point of view.

    Naturally, advertisers try to make shopping more important. They’ll imply that if you buy the right bicycle then you can ride like Lance Armstrong. But few people really believe that, and if you want to ride a bike then you do need to get a bicycle. Perhaps the main point is that shopping should only play a minor role in a person’s experience.

    Now, addictive behavior is a real problem. Is it actually getting worse? Maybe. I find the Internet overly addictive. But part of resisting that is not falling for overly myopic analyses like this one.

    I agree that the ethical marketer should be wary of encouraging addictive behavior and respect people’s time. Making entertainment overly addictive isn’t doing your customers any favors. As an example, movies only last between 90 minutes and three hours, so they’re self-limiting. Shouldn’t video games be the same way?

    • Very possibly I exaggerated for dramatic effect, but I find it curious that you choose as your counter-examples consumption of musical instruments and art supplies. Both are tools of production, not consumption items per se. In fact they are the tools of artistic rather than mechanical production.

      Perhaps that is significant, or perhaps you could make the same argument using pop tarts and big macs? I am not sure. At the very least, using such products would weaken your point I think.

      • Kinsley Castle says

        Trust me, consumerism has well and truly infiltrated the world of musical instruments. As I sit here right now, I’m surrounded by prominent brand names like Vox, Fender, Marshall, and Rickenbacker. All of those brands have particular associations. They are status symbols more than anything. I’m not a better musician for choosing those brands over, say, Epiphone and Behringer (i.e. cheap Chinese knock-offs). So I’m just as much a consumer whore as anyone, regardless of how I employ these tools of my trade.

      • Brian Slesinsky says

        Yes, I chose tools of production because it’s a clear case where stereotypical consumer behavior exists as part of a larger context. But okay, let’s talk about food instead. Eating a pop-tart is an example of eating. It’s normal to consume things when we eat! Given that consumer behavior must exist, the real question is how should we should distinguish between normal and pathological behavior when it comes to eating and eating-related consumer behavior?

        In the US, at least, it seems that nearly everyone worries about eating. Eating too much, eating too little, eating the wrong things. In a larger context, many people worry about how our supply chain harms the environment. Alternately, we could focus on how much time we spend shopping, cooking, eating, or going out to eat, whether that time and money is spent well, whether we spend too much on kitchens and kitchen gadgets, and so on.

        However we choose to eat, some form of shopping will be involved (perhaps garden supplies or restaurants), and our choices are limited somewhat by the options available. I think it’s right to pay attention to eating, but I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up too much because we are inevitably consumers.

  10. I found the analogy to the One Ring very insightful because it brings the semiotic role of the product into the relationships that partially define personal meaning. But, just as coupons or hoarded items are the black hole exerting powerful gravitational pulls on those of us faced with daily consumer choices, we are also being propelled by our social networks to plunge into the well of darkness, whether for conformity, gemuetlicheit, or distinctive branding. Even before Web 2.0-enabled tribes of raving fans beyond one’s immediate acquaintence, one faced the social pressure from friends and family to “keep up with the Jones.” To be an outlier beyond the pull of the black hole is to flirt with social ostracism. Very few folks are stoic enough to resist the urge, sometimes quite latent, to purchase the clothes or car or music that is approved of by the people with whom they most want to relate with some assurance of reciprocity.

    • I’m not sure it even matters if people are “stoic enough to resist the urge” when it comes to the people with whom we want to relate. The complexity lies in the fact that humans are inherently social; generally, even the outcasts are themselves a group. Ultimately any group which people self-select themselves into will have a number facets with varying degrees of commercial viability. If your interests align with a group that happens to have a high number of potentially commercial differentiators, you are left with little choice but to adopt a minimum viable set of facets necessary for approval, or face a constant uphill battle with not only the acceptance of your existing peer group, but also the expansion of your social circle. Choosing to the path of the outcast potentially rejects not only commercialism, but also the very characteristics with which we may truly identify.

      The fact that we’ve begun identifying with commercial brands or images is a consequence of the need for differentiation. Given the tremendous amount of information we encounter day to day, we necessarily have to develop a set of filters to separate those like us from other. In an ideal scenario we have a meaningful interaction with each person and can use this to form unbiased opinions on an individual basis. That’s not how it works in the real world. When a certain external indicator, say clothing, ranks highly on people’s list of filters, it becomes much more difficult to even facilitate the sort of interaction which would have a profound enough impact to overcome a mistaken first impression. The guy with the crew cut and business suit will have a harder time picking up the chick at the metal show because he doesn’t fit the visual profile. That this profile can be highly impacted by commercial opportunities (even in a sub-culture that values DIY, tattoos ain’t free), isn’t the fault of interests themselves. It is simply a business’s response to a market need.

    • I avoid pomo terms where possible because it tends to buy linguistic precision at the expense of general accessibility, but yeah, “brings the semiotic role of the product into the relationships that partially define personal meaning” is exactly the idea I was going for.

      And you are also right about raving-fan-tribes pre-dating the 2.0 era. Whyte’s description of the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ process in ‘The Organization Man’ documents the phenomenon in its infancy (before around 1950, consumer markets were still too dominated by craft-over-manufacture for the phenomenon to dominate proceedings).

  11. But where is your horse? That’s what someone from 150 years ago might say to one of us if they landed here from a time machine.

    We all define ourselves via the trappings of our time. When I was a child I was still getting a lot of really negative ranting from 60 and 70 years who were uncomfortable with the changes they were seeing around them. They could have written this blog.

    My guess is that it’s all shallow, it’s all hollow. But that’s just a guess, because all I have is my own silly frame of reference. This blog really gave me the creeps, which usually means you probably hit the nail right on the head.

    Excellent piece.

    • Scarhawk says

      One thing I learned from playing poker is that choosing which table to sit down at is at least as important as how you play the game. If the table is full of tightwads, maybe you can make a steady income betting aggressively and collecting when they fold; if they’re all playing wild you can stay conservative and occasionally trap them for a big win. Probably one or the other is a better match for your own style, but either way you’re basically playing the opposite of what everyone else is doing, in order to get an advantage over dumb luck, which comes in waves regardless of how good you are.

      The comparison to consumerism might be that if you’re in a great economy, you can afford to buy fairly classicist higher-quality material goods and keep them a long time. You get some social status from having nice things, but avoid wasting money on churning out of perfectly good products into the next trend, and you project a more stable personality, which besides being a good leadership quality is a decent way to spot and filter out insecure people. Meanwhile if you’re in a bad economy, you can coast on your older possessions while investing cashflow into whatever you think will be the next upswing, or you can go for extra status by being the only one who can afford some ostentation since you didn’t overspend in the last upswing. A little ostentation, if you use it as a tool instead of investing personal pride in it, is a great filter. People in awe of it are Gollums, while people who deride it are Gollum wannabes; people who are comfortable with it and don’t mention it may be the sweet spot. Of course among those you’d want as friends the ones who can hang out in hoodie & jeans where appropriate, i.e. the ones who also view it as a social tool, a means to some other end. Well-moderated consumerism can be used as social engineering if you understand what your goods say about you and to whom.

      It helps if you’re old enough to have been through several 7-year business cycles so you can think of upturns & downturns as inevitable. As it turns out, major social trends are about as long as business cycles (maybe they’re the same thing), while minor ones come and go much more quickly, so all you’re really doing is trying to get good at spotting which category a new trend falls into. Get in early on classicist trends and avoid trends in ostentation (except to sample them for pop culture literacy).

    • Scarhawk says

      I should add that playing poor can be just as useful, if you spend time adding dynamic range to your personality, and ostentation to your life story that can be told or ignored at will.

  12. As usual with your posts this is thought -provoking, but going back to the video that was its inspiration, the thoughts it provoked in me weren’t exactly the thoughts it provoked in you. The first thing I thought was rather that this is the specialization of labor taken to an extreme: A complex global consumer economy enables someone to make a good living from having other people photograph her hands.

    From an economic point of view Ellen Sirot thus *is* her hands; nothing else about her matters. This is not a new thing, of course; millions of laborers throughout history have been in the same position. But unlike Sirot their hands were extremely fungible, while (at least to a first approximation) Sirot’s hands are not: Like the elite athletes she compared them to, they are literally one — or I should say, two — in a million, and their economic worth is enhanced accordingly.

    The past millions of manual laborers and their hands may have been fungible (and ultimately disposable), but the economy didn’t make a lot of demands on them once their manual work was done. However in Sirot’s case the unique value of her hands in an economic sense leads them to take over her private life and put it in service to their needs; at the same time (and as part of the same process) her personality becomes concentrated in her hands, the only thing that matters as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

    I don’t see Sirot and her hands as a symbol of consumerism, rather I see her hands as a creation of consumerism: If there were not millions of people buying hand cream, dishwasher detergent, fine jewelry, etc., then her hands would not matter (in an economic sense). And as the consumer economy expands in size and scope the specialization continues: The economy needs baby hands, tween and teen hands, muscular masculine hands, old (but still attractive) hands, hands of different colors and ethnic characteristics, and so on.

    But she’s not really that unique. Sirot’s case reminds me of nothing so much as the whole idea of “Brand You”, of positioning oneself as a unique and specialized source of economic value to some set of consumers within some more and less niche market. The logic of that process is that all your public manifestations (blog posts, tweets, podcasts, etc.) are then in service to that end, and all aspects of private life are rendered irrelevant and undesired (except perhaps to the extent that they support brand differentiation).

    That’s may be another reason why some people (and perhaps some bloggers in particular) see Sirot’s video as creepy: It shows this process (literally) made flesh, as the human entity that is Ellen Sirot fades into the background and the economic entity that is Sirot’s pair of hands assumes pride of place. Not to psychoanalyze you, but maybe that’s also part of why you got creeped out by your over-enthusiastic fans — that if you went down that road with them that Venkat would disappear, and only “Venkat” would remain.

    • Venkat would disappear, and only “Venkat” would remain

      This has already happened, and on purpose, the major difference is that the merchandising of the “product” is not yet up to speed.
      That may be why the video give him the creeps (beyond the level of the average person).

      • Drilling for the nerve there, jld? :)

        But yup, you guys may be right. A role in the spotlight does tend to swallow you more than an equally demanding role away from the spotlight. I find myself looking at too many things with an eye to bloggability. Perhaps I should accelerate the merchandising plans, so I can objectify and compartmentalize better.

        This line of thought reminds of McLuhan’s notion of “autoamputation.” Since every medium is the metaphoric “extension” of some human capability, sometimes an overextended appendage can be auto-amputated. Obviously hasn’t happened to Sirot though. I have met quite a few full-time writers who rely more on their writing than I do, and paradoxically, they are more capable of being detached from it than I am, and maintain a dual identity without their non-quoted names disappearing.

        And Frank: yeah, Sirot is more a creation of consumerism than just a symbol. Extreme division of labor and resultant reduction of humans to their aspect selves is obviously the economic driver as you say. You just appear to be less disturbed by the phenomenon than I am.

        • I’m less disturbed by the phenomenon for two reasons. First, my career has primarily been in working with sales reps, so I’m somewhat numbed to the idea of economic considerations driving personal behavior. Second, the “Ellen Sirot problem” is somebody else’s problem, at least in the version I’ve discussed. I’ve learned from years of blogging that the audience for “Frank the brand” is miniscule, so the issue of separating myself from the economic aspect of myself isn’t salient — it would be like me worrying about the effect of Hollywood stardom on my psyche. I’m much more worried about there continuing to be markets for products that someone is willing to pay me to help sell — that’s what keeps me awake at night.

  13. James Bayley says

    “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. ”

    A good point well made.

    “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”

    Complete nonsense. Halve the length of your blog postings and eat properly; we will all be better off!

    • My terms of service on this site allow me 34% rhetorical exaggeration on Thursdays.

      I do manage to spend quite a lot of time cooking from scratch, though not as much as I’d like to. But then, my income (and that of most readers of this site I think) puts me well above the level where this effect is strongest. I’ve been shocked by the amount of cheap frozen/prepared food poor people seem forced to eat.

  14. The etymology of the word addict is an interesting one. It derives from a classical Latin word that meant to hand over, surrender, or to enslave.

    The idea of enslavement here intrigues me because money lending and debt have long been recognized as forms of enslavement. The proverb “The rich rule the poor and the borrower is the slave to the lender” can be found in the Old Testament.

    So without even getting into basic consumer choices such as Burger King vs. McDonalds, we can see that nearly all of us are institutionally enslaved by the credit system, which I see having three heads: mortgage, credit card and student loan.

    Mortgage and student loan are of course central to fundamental identity creation. Nothing defines your class status more clearly than the neighborhood in which you live and whether or not you attended college (and more important, which college you attended). Most everyone below the wealthiest classes is forced to purchase these two items with credit, which automatically binds them not only to the lenders, but also leads to a monthly salary addiction as well in most cases.

    I agree, we have a Gollumizing economy and credit is the One Ring.

    You could argue, perhaps, that a big swath of middle class americans (i.e., gollums) were tossed into the cracks of Mordor with the credit collapse of 2008. Their usefulness had expired.

    In any case, great post. Keep going!

  15. My reading of Venkat’s post was that people (consumers) tend to define themselves by their patterns of consumption. While comparing it to an addiction was novel, the original idea is less so. What I kept reading for, and was ultimately disappointed in not finding, was a more humanizing method of self-definition. Not too long ago, I read (here, perhaps?) the idea that the hippies got it wrong when they tried to *find* themselves. Personal meaning isn’t found, so much as created. That makes fits in the light of this addiction to consumerism: people are creating meaning through their consumption patterns. Why would this be so? I know instinctively that I am more than the clothes and jewelry I wear, the car I drive or the restaurants I eat in. But when I meet others, my first reaction is to try and form an opinion of them based on what is outwardly visible: their patterns of consumption. I think this mental habit is what causes us (in the West) to try and define ourselves to others as consumers and then slip into deriving our own value from our consumption. Does this seem realistic?

    I have begun to develop a theory of a couple sources where people create a meaningful definition of themselves. I won’t share it here, since it’s not well thought out and I’m still exploring. I would be extremely interested to hear how others believe we can humanistically (not consumeristically) create a definition of self.

  16. I think you are onto something and your viewpoint is very clear compared to others. Your writing is excellent.

    I encourage you to continue.

    Thanks for writing.

  17. The One Ring has agency without movement: it works purely through the mind of the victim, doing the will of its designer, without requiring the designers presence. Yes, products work similarly, and give the marketer-designer similar power. But does this power always imply a degree of enslavement?

    If your definition of a customer implies a consumer, something not fully human, then what is human? Bartering? To me, combinatorial consumption seems rich enough to get your doppelganger lost. For example, I’m almost completely indifferent to that list of brand preferences, and most other brands. Once you see the addiction traps, you are empowered to avoid them. The art lies in resisting belief-formation around the brand, and just view stuff as stuff. Remain Spartan in your usage. Buy few things, and use or lose most of them. I buy top brands of addictive stuff when I have visitors, to signal that I care, but I have come off nearly all addictions myself. I do buy some processed foods, to save time, but I also wear out of style clothes to save time. Shopping is still a chore, like doing the dishes, and economic specialization, however far it goes, is about the very human drive to avoid chores.

    I agree that products can be Gollum-enslaving rings, but the Spartan middle ground seems safe to me. I like the analogy, but to say that as mainstream consumers we are mediocre Gollums seems too dystopian.

    • or example, I’m almost completely indifferent to that list of brand preferences, and most other brands. Once you see the addiction traps, you are empowered to avoid them. The art lies in resisting belief-formation around the brand, and just view stuff as stuff. Remain Spartan in your usage.

      I agree that if you can do this , you are basically safe. What bothers me is that I meet so few people actually capable of this. Especially that last “spartan” bit. I am not a raving, Facebook-liking fan of any particular brand of kettle-cooked chips, for exactly the reasons you mention, but that doesn’t prevent me from being at least mildly addicted to kettle-cooked chips in a brand-agnostic way. Food is an extreme category since it directly hooks into physiological addiction machinery, but my edge experience of it is enough for me to understand/appreciate how hoarders and those 1000lb stars of “extreme fat” shows get that way.

  18. I am reminded of a quote by a programmer known only by his online persona as ‘_why the lucky stiff’. (That adopted online identity is all that I have to know him by enters him into this discussion):

    “When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. So create.”

    In the obvious case from above, purchasing art supplies is the beginning of an interaction and not the entirety of one. It’s true that a story ending with a purchase is a bad story, but not all stories end that way.

    A continuum of hoarder acetic misses this distinction. The curator of a museum and the hoarder of soap are both consumers of a numerically large amount of things. The difference lies in the complexity of the interaction.

    For this reason, a simple comparison of preference is no means for identifying a doppelganger. I might prefer the same guitar as Jimmy Page. but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make us doppelgangers (even if we assume that my preference is independent of Jimmy’s and not based on me seeking to copy him).

    The opposite of the hoarder isn’t the monk but the person who creates something new and unique with the things he consumes. This interaction is obvious with guitars or paint or computers, but it applies with anything that we bring into our life.

    Hoarding happens when someone is further up Maslow’s pyramid than they realize. At a lower economic level, access to physical materials is scarce. At a higher level, stuff is plentiful and the scarce quantity becomes time and energy. Many folks are mis-calibrated at this boundary: they spend scarce time and energy working to afford too many things which they then… lack the time and energy to enjoy in a fulfilling way.

    Perhaps we can consider pop tarts as a step in the hierarchy between “starvation” and “gourmet chef.” The progression might be:

    No pop tarts => enough pop tarts => too many pop tarts => lean cuisine => vegan restaurants => vegan chef with a blog and all that.

    First you’re limited by stuff, then by money, then by time/energy. The free market economy does a great job at the bottom of the pyramid, but the higher you get the less help it can provide.

    • vegan chef with a blog and all that

      Uh! Oh! Beware, veganism is a highly noxious, demented ideology, nothing rational, except for a tiny minority of people who have indeed serious allergy/physiological problems.
      A close to optimal diet is not either aligned with the “established” nutritionists who are themselves “fed” by agro-industrial lobbies.
      Remember, the proof is in the pudding!

      • It’s a broad-based movement. There are the demented ones, and the thoughtful ones. No need to tar with one brush/throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

        • Sorry Venkat, even when not demented and even if some are friends of yours, vegetarianism is a fraud, read about it…

          • Interesting, now you’ve rescoped from veganism to vegetarianism :). Both movements have the misfortune to be known by their loony fringe. It’s like if America were judged solely on the basis of Glenn Beck.

            Serious vegetarian/vegan thinkers I know of are as skeptical of the health, macroeconomic and environmental claims of their peers as meat-eaters, and dissuade their followers from using those arguments.

            The only truly sound reason for avoiding meat is concern for animal welfare/avoiding pain, especially under factory farming conditions. That one argument is definitely NOT a fraud if you know anything of factory farming conditions, and it doesn’t matter what else is true or false. The cruelty involved in factory farming is enough reason to turn vegetarian/vegan. In theory, I am completely fine with meat eating (though I still wouldn’t do it myself — more a matter of habit in my case, having grown up vegetarian) if humanely grown meat were widely available. It is not, and in fact, there is now an ongoing cynical and greedy scramble to do the bare minimum to qualify for “cruelty-free” labels like “free range” and “cage free.”

          • Interesting, now you’ve rescoped from veganism to vegetarianism

            To mean that since veganism is included in vegetarianism what’s worth for vegetarianism is worth for veganism, as far as health is concerned.

            The only truly sound reason for avoiding meat is concern for animal welfare/avoiding pain, especially under factory farming conditions. That one argument is definitely NOT a fraud

            May be… But this is not what I am arguing about nor what my link says, it says that “Respected nutrition and health researcher, Dr. T. Colin Campbell” whose China Study is one of the main pillars of vegetarianism is a deliberate scientific fraud!

          • Soud-vide trout… a thousand times more delicious than anything vegan/vegetarian in mi opinion. Although I can survive just eating chicken eggs, if I feel guilty about eating previously living animals.

            Anyway, my point is: you just replace the veganism/vegetarianism with a Paleo diet (your link details a very Paleo diet, indeed) cooked with a Sous-vide, and Venkat point still stands.

    • The difference lies in the complexity of the interaction.

      The complexity of interaction doesn’t recover individuality. Curator is also a job description.

      A customer is by no means passive and its voluntarism is awed and scared by the capitalist maker / merchant. The customer hasn’t only the choice between one-in-the-series but also the choice of nothing i.e. rejecting to be a customer at all. It can return into idle mode for arbitrary long. The theory might say that one becomes a customer of something else but that “else” is entirely undetermined. So a customer has the power of negativity whereas the addicted has lost it. The addicted is spectral and home of the specter. That’s the ghostly aspect that the addicted has lost negativity / subjectivity which isn’t a positive quality, like a set of skills. The commodity or fetish has taken the place of negativity, like those supernatural hands of the model, and that gives us an uncanny feeling.

      I think it should be clear that I reject the reading by which subjectivity is some sort of phallic creator-ego which escaped its castration by avoiding to be a consumer.

  19. internetLoser says

    Great piece. Venkat, I kind of had you pinned as a neo-conservative, but this essay defied expectations with its calls to rebellion through genuine human-ness. It definitely reminds me of Marx’s ideas about alienation. (Although neo-cons are basically just Marxists who side with the masters, so it shouldn’t be so surprising that you’d write something like this.)

    • I don’t find labels particularly useful. I prefer to say that I have a certain approach to thinking about anything, and in a given case, that may cast me in one ideological camp or another. Usually, when my conclusions agree with camp X, my arguments don’t.

  20. Fascinating analysis. Somewhat related, the blog Overthinking It has <a href="; an interesting series of essays about Juggalos and the school of thought you decry at the end of your essay. I’m with you on that. The idea of making a little army of fanatics freaks me out a little.

  21. Christian Molick says

    Hippies get dismissed in this remark: “… 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 …” But the book What the Dormouse Said appears to document that computers and the Internet are largely a creation of hippies and hippie culture. Furthermore, it is easy to confirm from a quick scan of hippie culture, for example, that hippies are an extension of consumer culture who are willing to go beyond legal boundaries to sate their appetites. Rejecting hippie culture is common enough, but being so sloppy and dismissive in doing so is distracting.

  22. This post should perhaps have begun with the warning: Be scared. Be very scared.

    As indicated by Stefan K and others there seem to be not-too-difficult coping tactics for avoiding Gollumization.

    I think this is not the first time you are overdoing the firing-the-fans stance. Sounds a bit too defensive/apologetic about an unspecified aspect? And it is so obvious that your reasons get publicly psychoanalyzed (hat tips to Frank and jld :-)). I get this creepy image of a loud colorful animated ad near your blog title saying, “Last few Dunbar number fan coupons to be issued! Hurry and make your clever debating point N-O-W”. I hope this scares you enough to avoid distracting disclaimers at least in the next few posts.

    • Ah come on! I’ve been justly accused of too much meta-commentary on some previous posts, but in this case, it would have been hypocritical to not state my own position, given that I market several things.

      But you actually bring up a point that I hadn’t considered at all, the connection to Dunbar’s number. There’s a rich vein there that I hadn’t considered. I’d assumed that the Gollumizing nature (or lack thereof) of a product/service lies in the product/service itself. Therefore, whether the consumer of a product connects at a human level to the maker is irrelevant; it is a liberating/enslaving product based on its own nature.

      You are suggesting that lack of a human connection between maker/consumer (i.e. a “Dunbar ticket”) is by itself sufficient to Gollumize (or contribute to the Gollumization of) a consumer. Which means that ANY product where the maker/consumer ratio is more than 150 is a de facto Gollumizing product. I vaguely recall this, stated differently, being one of the tenets of basic anarchist theory :).

      Prima facie, this seems incorrect. Shakespeare has been dead for 100s of years, and his products do not Gollumize. But then, there is a very human Shakespeare “industry” of hundreds of thousands of teachers/professors who make consumption of his works a live prosumer market that operates in small classroom groups. It is conceivable that someone marooned on an island with just a copy of Shakespeare’s works, would be Gollumized by it. If I were to discover the works of a dead Shakespeare-quality writer who was never publicly known (an extreme Emily Dickinson), my first instinct would be to share with others. Those who don’t share (example, private and anonymous collectors of art who hide their collection in a back room that they never show to others) would be Gollumized.

      So… I think your suggestion is actually correct, and even scarier than mine.

      It also suggests a natural scaling law/limit for a business to remain human: the consumer/maker ratio has to stay below 150 as an upper limit. This isn’t too harsh a limit, since anyone who contributes enough to the making (as people who post substantial comments on this site do) can potentially go to the denominator.

      But it takes some clever organizational work to actually approach that upper limit, since the natural tendency of a group is to cluster in a small world. For example, you mentioned Frank and jld, and I know all 3 of you at the level of email exchanges, and I assume the 3 of you have encountered each other’s views enough in the comments that your Dunbar “circles” are close to intersecting, which would make me merely a catalyst.

      Which means if you guys have personal connections with other ribbonfarm readers I don’t know personally, the scaling accomplished has to be adjusted for small-world effects. Example: I know a lot of spouses of regular commenters are also readers, but I never hear from them, and only know this because the regulars have mentioned it to me. So your individual “amplification ratios” of the “human reach” of this blog cannot be more than 148. Likely far lower, since I suspect every regular+commenting reader has likely introduced this blog to no more than 2-3 personal connections.

      There’s probably a very interesting prescriptive idea here, for online community design (and therefore, for community-driven marketing), that can probably be mathematically formulated. The governing heuristics has already been discovered: get customers talking to each other rather than to the producer. Use the product as a social object to catalyze connections. The open question is, how do you do this so that you create a community of critical discourse rather than a set of cells of a proselytizing cult? Otherwise the heuristics are necessary, not sufficient, and can just as easily cause an Amway community as a real one (Amway is a good example of pre-Facebook “social gollumization”).

      And as a bit of meta-commentary to THIS comment, this sort of discussion is EXACTLY why I prefer a small, non-Gollum audience to a Gollumized one. With your one comment, you’ve given me enough material for a whole new post.

      Though it is obviously uncomfortable for me to be psychoanalyzed in the spotlight, the benefits are worth it, and the commenters who do that aren’t exactly in the dark themselves. Merely by posting their comments, Frank, jld (and you) have opened yourselves up to public psychoanalysis too.

      Some readers have been telling me lately that I don’t do enough to promote this blog and that the audience should be much bigger. While I don’t have the “keep it human” prescription formulated yet, I think it is growing at the right, sustainable rate. It is very tempting to hit the accelerator (and I know I am a good enough marketer to do so if I wanted), but it makes more long-term sense to only grow at the “sustainable, keep-it-human” speed limit.

      • Brian Slesinsky says

        The idea of staying within the Dunbar limit is a rather romantic notion that doesn’t take into account what’s been achieved through scale. A business with only a few customers cannot build an iPhone, an airline, or Google search. For most people, the amount your customers are willing to pay won’t match up with what you’d reasonably expect to earn, so you can’t earn a living with such a small customer base.

        The infrastructure will necessarily be impersonal, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing; do you really need a personal relationship with your phone company? But perhaps some businesses with a more personal connection can be built on top of this impersonal substrate. (Are these really businesses or more like hobbies?)

        Facebook and Twitter and Quora are in the community infrastructure business. They might participate a little bit, and they’d be nowhere if there weren’t communities built on their platform. But the communities that live there are pretty much on their own.

        • You’re right that it is unrealistic for most businesses, but most businesses probably don’t need to account for all these Gollumizing effects to begin with, if they are not addictive.

          But things may be subtle even there. Personal relationship with phone company? Sure, if it means I get the same customer-service rep every time for instance, and design plans to be both comprehensible and profitable, instead of profitable at the expense of my incomprehension.

          I don’t like needless attempts at humanizing obviously simple transactional relationships though.

          There are also some kinds of Gollumization that possibly don’t matter. GPS units reduce the need/ability to think spatially, but those who care can easily correct that by choosing work that requires spatial intelligence. Plus there’s enough spatial thinking in our world that cannot be GPSed away.


      • That’s a well-thought-out answer to a chllaengnig question

  23. The GPS versus Need for Spatial Intelligence is a theme that can be explored in different ways, with and without reference to the Gollum effect.

    Some examples of human abilities pitted against machines:

    -Creative storytelling ability vs Storywriting software
    -Music rules and software vs AR Rahman producing new sounds and tunes (one of the early users of technology)
    -Random art produced by machines versus Amy Lin’s dots
    -Increasingly sophisticated camera tech vs Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment

    The examples all seem to be in the artistic domains but could extend to many dimensions of problem-solving, business enterprise, marketing and communication.

    Even the most optimistic AI fan would not make predictions of software having the ability to produce the rule-breaking art of a Dali or Picasso, or the plain white Google home page when Yahoo and Altavista were the reigning search engine portals.

    Connection to the Gollum effect?

    -The output of creative individuals and enterprise builders seem to constantly “want” to Gollumize the population but history emphatically shows that the human brain evolves to outpace the Gollumonster
    -It could possibly be argued that the Gollumization-aiding tools and mechanisms actually enable more people to resist getting Gollumized, except that it takes different forms and different kinds of effort to achieve it. So the species as a whole is getting less Gollumized while more individuals suffer the effect.
    -The marketers in this story are not some evil perpetrators but themselves Gollumized to compulsively apply standard measures and tactics, driven by the standard profit and growth motive of the Gollumized business owner (serial entrepreneurship is the antidote adopted by a few).

    A final thought on this discussion that started with the handmodel video. Isn’t every person who hoard dolls (or goes to extreme lengths to use a hand as a model) craving to become famous in a unique way, be noticeable, get rich enough to be able to choose whatever their human aspirations are? Maybe many don’t ever arrive at the “enough” checkpoint but that is where they are heading.

    [A small side note: The IPL cricket league auction is a colossal example of the Gollum effect not only on the players, but also the fading celebrity owners and the chattering masses around millions of lunch tables discussing the live coverage.]

  24. GreenEngineer says

    By way of a modest proposal for escaping Gollumization around food: get some containers, plant some lettuce and greens, and grow your own salad. You get super-fresh produce (much better than anything from a store), and you get to eat food you grew yourself without a barrier of having to cook it. Even if you’re eating your home-grown salad with a burger from McD’s, it’s at least a start down the path to freedom.

    On a related note, I want to reply to your statement to a previous commenter:
    “In theory, I am completely fine with meat eating … if humanely grown meat were widely available. It is not, and in fact, there is now an ongoing cynical and greedy scramble to do the bare minimum to qualify for “cruelty-free” labels like “free range” and “cage free.””

    You’re quite right that there is a rush to figure out the bare minimum “industrial organic” solution and implement that. But there are some exceptions, which pasture their animals (the REAL cage-free way).
    These guys do pastured pork and poultry:
    and here for beef:
    Super tasty meat, very low footprint, and very happy (if short-lived) animals.

    These guys ( are a major milk producer in NorCal, and they’ve worked closely with the Humane Society to certify the treatment of their animals.

    These are fringey operations so, yeah, this isn’t widely available. But it’s out there, and there’s a lot more of it than there was even a few years ago, and it’s a great way to vote with your dollars in favor of sane food production.

  25. Rob Meekings says

    Having read

    “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.”

    I was immediately put in mind of this post when I read:

    “Three firms control 89% of US soft drink sales [1]. This dominance is obscured from us by the appearance of numerous choices on retailer shelves. Steve Hannaford refers to this as “pseudovariety,” or the illusion of diversity, concealing a lack of real choice [2]. To visualize the extent of pseudovariety in this industry we developed a cluster diagram to represent the number of soft drink brands and varieties found in the refrigerator cases of 94 Michigan retailers, along with their ownership and/or licensing connections.”

    There’s more, and some great visualizations here:

  26. hewhocutsdown says

    aka Cthulhu capitalism

  27. Hey,

    First of all let me apologize if what I’m saying has been said on this blog a billion times before. I just read this and the Gervais Principle and haven’t had time to scour comments.

    The impression I get from your last paragraph here is that you want the freedom to produce and sustain yourself without being a sociopath nor exploiting gollums (in fact, those two things go hand-in-hand). Wouldn’t the solution then be to actively aim for a middle class level of wealth? Which is not the same as the self-aware loser, since that’s a form of settling. More like… a self-aware sociopath.

    Great blog! I look forward to reading more.

  28. I found this fascinating. I’m so glad that your writing helps me be more fully human.

    I agree with so much of your analysis, except, I guess, with the biggest part of it. I don’t think our humanity is being drained away or even impaired much by Gollumization. This is because the light you have cast on the subject seems to ignore more of what we do as humans: we worry, we strive, we dream, we share experiences. None of that need involve buying a Snickers bar. There is a shadow world of humanity in and around all of us. This shadow world is private to our local social structures (lovers, brothers, clubs, etc.) and is illegible to the analysis of social commentators, news reporters, political pundits and marketers.

    For a small example, consider how lovers interact on television shows, commercials, and movies. We see clever, accessible repartee with little evidence of the messy and byzantine fabric of guttural communication that springs up in real relationships; and of routine emotional politics that all of us experience. Notice that lovers on TV put their hands only in certain places, kiss only in certain ways and times. Notice that women are either not abused or intimidated, in the movies, or else they are criminally ravaged. Where’s that routine in-between? It’s not to be seen. Real relationships are either boring or infuriating to watch, and they are complicated and contradictory, too, so they’re not useful for entertainment.

    They exist in a shadow world of true daily life. The shadow world is boring, unheralded and un-analyzed. The shadow world is most of the world.

    While it’s true that I eat mostly at McDonalds. I do that because I want to eat quickly and get it over with. I would rather do other things than eat. I spend most of my time operating my business, which involves a lot of never-will-be-televised-or-Gollumized thinking about system dynamics. Eating is not the interesting part of my life. That’s okay with me. I buy things, too. That also is not the interesting part of my life. I would like to explain what I think about most of the time, but it would be a long and illegible story that I promise cannot be reduced to a marketing category other than “bookish”… but that’s not really a gollemizable attribute, is it? What would it mean to be addicted to learning and developing one’s mind?

    I think you’re right to worry about Gollumization driving some people into meaningless lives… except that 2,000 and 5,000 years ago people also lead meaningless lives. I bet that’s a constant. The real difference today is that we have mass-media for a mirror. Just remember that mass-media cannot and will not reflect but a fraction of how we spend our days and construct our thoughts.

  29. Venkat,

    We izzz a long time reader, but first time poster! my preciousssssss :-D! Sounds funny when I write ;-)

    Your fixation (penchant, just to sound erudite :-D) with outlandish “plot devices” to tell a story always baffles me. Everytime “Gervais principle” is discussed countless hours are wasted trying to tell people to look beyond the words (Sociopaths!, clueless!!, losers!!!) as those words are *NOT* their intended meanings, but MacLeod’s plot device!!
    And now this! Man, do you realise how much you shoot yourself in the foot by placing inconvenient role models and meanings to otherwise moments of brilliant observation! At times you eschew “Be slightly evil” to “Be slightly loopy”, if you’ll forgive my liberty there.

    Based on the gamut of responses (I would not say denials, but sometimes it is hard not to read it that way) it seems that despite a tightrope walk you’ve treaded on a few closely held beliefs and belief systems! But ypu know what, other people have walked here before!

    James Kunstler’s favourite remark on this:

    Please stop referring to yourselves as consumers. “Consumers” are different than citizens. Consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities, and duties to their fellow human beings. And as long as you are using that word “consumer,” you will be degrading the quality of the public discussion as we go into the very difficult future that we face.

    But I posit that this will end soon(ish), for I firmly believe that limitless growth is impossible to achieve(#), and therefore, we will need to spend more energy in “trying to maintain status quo”(*).

    (#) If we posited that type of interpolation to human growth, we will all be nearly 30′ tall by the time we are 80!
    (*) Using the human being analogy, large part of our lives after we stop growing tall, is in maintaining ourselves (from falling apart), basically.

    Even if you refuse to acknowledge limits to resources, I posit there’s also limits to human ingenuity. So, we will find that limitless growth is impossible, Vaclav Smil writes:

    Only the widespread scientific illiteracy and innumeracy prevents most of the people from dismissing the idea of sustainable growth at healthy rates as an oxymoronic stupidity whose pursuit is, unfortunately, infinitely more tragic than comic. After all, even cancerous cells stop growing once they have destroyed the invaded tissues.

    Although you had sidestepped in your previous post on this (i.e., there’s no real resolution to the “antidote to the Gervais principle”), you now need to address the elephant in the room, namely consumerism, which is basically the evil twin(*) of careerism, and vice versa.

    (*) I have another axe to grind on your usage of that term, but another time, another day!

    I would like to help you in this regard by pointing out that “Early Retirement Extreme”, which you are well aware of, is (one of) the antidote(s) to the Gollum effect as well as the Gervais principle. I am interested in seeing if you would be bold enough to draw from that pool of ideas (I hope my tone is not too provocative) considering, it might antagonise your typical readership.

    P.S: I may not have commented, but your overt disdain for fanboyism in the post made me realise, I never was a fanboy but never did voice my dissent! You’ve been warned! ;-)

    P.P.S:- Unsolicited advice: When catering to an international audience with a blog, talking about vegetarianism/veganism usually draws the same response that Cipher makes in the Matrix.

    I know this steak doesn’t exist. And I know that the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After 13 years, you know what I have learned? Ignorance is bliss.

    As a “conditioned vegetarian” all my life. I empathise with “conditioned non-vegetarianism”. But find it laughable that the mind is unable to let go of an instilled concept, and conveniently resorts to demonising the opposite point of view at every turn, without even trying or bothering to understand! Even when the opposing point of view comes in myriad forms (^) (I hope you won’t censor me too much?).

    (^) On a lighter note, A skeptic is defined as someone, who on seeing the writing on the wall, will claim it is a fake! :-P

    P.P.P.P.S: Coffee is another “gollumisation thing”. You shouldn’t be soliciting free coffee, like so! (Convinced I am NOT a fanboy now? :-P)


    • Smil’s book is not complete or rounded. Basically, there are limits to growth based on human ingenuity also, even in his optimistic model. That is all I wished to point out. Shorter essay can be found here.


    • I am inclined to accept ‘be slightly loopy’ as a brand name for the next email newsletter :).

      Strange though the plot devices may be, I find that they are the easiest way to make certain complex ideas accessible (even to myself). Possibly that’s a sign of living in times that are actually loopy, and pretending to ourselves that we are normal.

      Agreed on the limits-to-growth point, but that battle may have been won. I am hearing the ‘sustainable growth’ argument less often with every passing year.

      As for coffee, that battle I’ve lost.

      • Welcome, Surio, where have you been!

        @venkat: Methinks “be slightly loopy” is too tame at this stage, the real worry is to “be sufficiently loopy”

        • Hello RG,
          Thank you kindly, for the warm greetings. Looks like my “reputation” seems to have preceded me here! You seem to know me well, and I know you are not this RG ;-). Either you have a different moniker elsewhere or my memory is not helping me, so you have to help me out here. Where have we shook hands before? I Appreciate your response.


          • @surio sorry for misleading phrase, it wasn’t meant to indicate familiarity (am pretty sure we haven’t encountered each other online or offline before this). It was more like, if you have been reading this blog and have the knack with words to elicit venkat’s prompt response, why have you been lurking quietly.

      • Venkat,
        Thanks for replying (and “We” (Royal We ;-)) izzzz glad to be of help in suggesting newsletter titles :-D), but you are still sidestepping(*)…. ;-) Maybe you intend to resolve the questions raised in another post…. Looks like I ought to wait for “those serieses…they consumes us… precioussssssss” :-D.
        (*) to ERE (not eerie! and definitely NOT THIS ERE(#)) or to NOT ERE, was that the original question? (Sorry bard!)

        (#) Evenly Rotating Economy (ERE). An imaginary economy in which all transactions and physical conditions are repeated without change in each similar cycle of time. Everything is imagined to continue exactly as before, including all human ideas and goals. Under such fictitious constant repetitive conditions, there can be no net change in any supply or demand and therefore there cannot be any changes in prices. The evenly rotating economy is a helpful device for studying the logical effects produced by the introduction of particular individual changes.

        Boss, thank you for acknowledging “Limits to growth” in such a straightforward way! I had assumed/anticipated some resistance :-O. However, unlike you I am not so sure the battle has been won… Been reading the papers lately? The worst part is, last year it was “by 5 years!” as opposed to two years this year! Sheer Madness! :-(

        To quote Smil again:

        […..] Above all: innovations and technical fixes cannot provide a lasting resolution. If we are not going to engineer thoughtful, gradual reductions, we run a considerable risk that the biosphere may do the scaling-down for us in a much less desirable (if not catastrophic) manner.

        The horror! The Horror!
        So a big “YaY” to the “beginning of the end” of those &^&$#% hand models (among a lot of other things too)! (I have to admit; she did creep me out big time!)
        Oh… And I had to smile at the coffee remark.

        P.S: DW threatened me to come clean here! “I am a sucker for filter coffee as well” :-?

        Matthe SigoNa!

        • Maybe you intend to resolve the questions raised in another post…

          Yes. I avoid processing complex themes prematurely in comments. I am not sidestepping anything. If/when I have something intelligent to say about those questions, I’ll do follow -up posts.

          • Thanks! I know your style by now; so I knew that’s what your move will be.
            But I had to come across as a “critical” reader by raising those points, lest I be automatically pushed into ‘fanboy’ domain :-D. Sorry, but am I milking that joke too much?

  30. Wonderful approach.
    You should check this, it kind of relates..

    in a funny/scary way.

  31. @RG,
    Thanks for clarifying. And thanks for the appreciative words. I feel honoured *bows*

  32. I don’t want to sound too gollumnized, but this article was great and I hope you keep up with these new series. I really want to know what Sauron’s intentions really are.

    As for the cuponeers and gambling analogy, I agree, I remember watching a show in History Channel (I think), called “Breaking Vegas”, and there was this guy called Dom the Dice Dominator who could totally control the dice and “beat the system” by making a randomnized game non-random. Needless to say, he almost made me want to emulate the same behavior at my local casino, of course I failed since I’m not THAT enslaved yet, besides that guy practices (or works) God knows how many hours per day.

    Anyway, cheep marketing indeed.

  33. Really thought-provoking post. I came across your blog in an answer on Quora about SEO and it looks like I’m another prime example of someone who didn’t “bounce” upon visiting.

    The part about raving fans/tribes was especially compelling. My favorite baseball blog ( does an amazing job of covering the New York Yankees and a lot of people have come to recognize it over the past couple of years.

    As positive as this is for fans of the team who want to read interesting takes on the Yankees, it has also bred a sometimes disturbing sub-culture of “zombies” who hang on every word that is published by the blog. Yankee-related memes are regularly created and the authors’ views on the Yankees are blindly accepted as gospel. I consider myself friendly with the authors of the blog and I’m not afraid to raise alternative viewpoints via my Twitter account. It is amazing how the raving tribe will always come to their defense in amazing numbers, often basing their opinions on little other than the fact that they read it on

    This all happens for a reason – they put out great content that inspires “tribes” of people to follow them. However, with that success comes the raving fans that referenced in the above post. Really fascinating behavior.

    All of that said, I’m not following you on Quora, following this blog via RSS, and I’m about to look you up on Twitter. Time for me to be fired, I guess.

  34. Venkat,

    Have you looked into the Mondragon Cooperatives (or Cleveland’s new copy, the Evergreen Cooperatives)? At the risk of sounding like the de-toothed hippy from the Simpsons, I think they represent a kinder, gentler, more humane economy; a transition away from the approach where consumers are the consumed and producers are enslaved. They shift the balance of power by asking some very important questions: “Why aren’t our workplaces and shops as democratic as we demand our governments to be? Don’t they play at least as large a role in our lives?”

    And, incidentally, they do a damn good job of making a respectful, cooperative economy look relevant and successful, not just some hippy pipe dream. Check ’em out!

  35. This is definitely the funniest blog post I’ve read in quite some time and really puts me at ease compared to all of the more serious stuff I’ve been reading. So, keep on experimenting!

  36. The big question in your post is:
    “Is there any kind of escape that does not involve couponing on the edge of hoarding-madness, or log-cabin survivalism?” I really want to get your thoughts on that question. In the post, you pose this question and then change the subject to talking about yourself as a marketer, and how you try to be humane (by respecting others’ humanity), but that’s a different question. The key question you raise is–how to we avoid becoming subhuman consumer Gollums? Is there any kind of escape that does not involve log-cabin survivalism? What do you think?

    • At the moment, I can’t think of any. The economic web is just too messily wired, connecting Gollumizing/non-Gollumizing products/services together.

      The game changer may be the decline of oil-based economics. Oil is a single, high-energy-density fuel. Alternative energies are by nature more varied and complicated, and might create conditions for broadly non-Gollumized subcultures at least.

  37. Okay, here’s a slightly different question. If we are Gollumized by consumer culture and trapped into producer work roles, which, no matter how interesting, tend to be time-consuming enough to interfere somewhat with maximum full-range humanity, then escaping the system and heading toward the fringe holds some appeal. (For example, I’ve recently been reading a blog called which suggests conscious escape from the system is much more possible than most people think. The 4 hour work week similarly encourages at least a partial escape.) For me, that type of escape seems appealing, but at the same time, the fringe has some downsides, including poverty, remove from rich social interaction with vital, intelligent producers, etc.

    It sounds like you have similar mixed feelings–a sense that moving away from the center of the producer/consumer mainstream is worthwhile, along with a sense that perhaps self-imposed exile is not an ideal solution either. When you say, “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,” I note that you think the message is potent and consequential, but it doesn’t sound like you want to be a powerless hippy!

    I also like this: “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.

    So I guess the question is: if fully realized humanity and the true richness of nature rather than the pseudo-richness of consumerism are worthy goals, then shouldn’t we undertake extreme acts of rebellion and self-imposed exile? Is our fear of doing that based on the loss of real value to be found in the mainstream of producer/consumer prison, or are we just afraid of an extreme move? It’s true that true escape is not possible for most people, but it is for some, including you and many of your readers, and yet we don’t pursue true escape. Should we?

    The question makes me think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. We can tell ourselves that being prisoner producers is more legitimately self-actualizing than being prisoner consumers, but maybe fully escaping from the Prison/Cave/Matrix and renouncing the charms and false honors of the prison is the only way to go. And the people still in the cave will see us as powerless hippies, and we will be powerless/outside of the prison society, but isn’t that worth it?

    What do you think? Is it really impossible to break free, or are we just scared? And if it’s not fear that keeps us in the mainstream, but a legitimate interest in being part of that mainstream, then how do we maximize the good and minimize the bad?

    • Re: me and many ribbonfarm readers being able to break away, that’s probably true, and in fact, there are things brewing with me personally on that front (stay tuned, news to come soon), but to your broader question, the connection to the allegory of the cave is a good one, because it illustrates the main problem: it is lonely out there, by the mouth of the cave, looking at the fire by yourself while the others are staring at the dancing shadows inside. I don’t think it is about missing material well-being that holds people back. It’s about missing a social context, even for the most introverted. And finally, it is also about a truth-proof. A solution that works for only one person is suspicious.

      In a way, it is a large-scale coordination problem. You want a lot of people with very diverse lives, interests and motivations to make the move at roughly the same time, and do so without a cult-creating Messiah brainwashing them. The large-scale migration to America in the 18th and 19th centuries is an example. That’s what “creating a new society” looks like.

      I’ve interacted a bit with the author of the extremeearlyretirment blog, but I think that solution will not work for most people for two reasons: it requires a kind of thoughtful, spartan austerity, and it appears to be a rather solitary path. It also needs some special circumstances to work out. Something as simple as having a kid early in your life, or a bad chronic disease, or immersion in a particular urban music scene as your main creative pursuit, can completely mess that up. Say what you will about the current mainstream world, but it has one thing no alternative system offers: a lot of robustness to variation in life stories. It would be a pity to lose this variety in pursuit of an overly defined formula.

      In a way, what we need are a few broad strokes trends that enable more and more people to find their own paths to non-Gollumization. The looming end of oil is one such factor. Maybe more can be created/catalyzed, or will emerge.

      This may seem like contradicting the whole point about Gollumization, but I think the broader solution will have to work for far lazier people, and provide a basis for a robust and open social identity. Avoiding Gollumization cannot be identical with self-denial and isolation. I think it is possibly to pursue a healthy hedonism without shutting off your brain and becoming a hermit.

      By “open social identity” I mean non-cult-like. Something robust enough to encounter the world in all its complexity without falling apart. This is hard. Especially if you are rational.

      • No offense, Venkat, but I don’t think it’s as hard to pull out of the consumption spiral as you portray it. And you’re not alone in that portrayal, either. I think that, like a good many things, people have simply repeated the same truisms until they became accepted fact.

        We’ve been sold a myth that these things we’re consumed by are convenient. I once believed in the same false dichotomy; that by giving up “conveniences”, I’d be making sacrifices. In truth, I discovered I’d been wasting money trying to make up for wasted time (and vice versa). Once my wife and I redefined our relationship to material things (they exist to serve us, not vice versa) and clarified the meanings of the words “need” and “want”, we rapidly began to save money (since the typical white-collar wage assumes a range of costs we were no longer incurring).

        Within two years, we had saved enough to take 3 years off of work, travel for months on end, and have kids.

        Changing your relationship with the consumptive economy is really more of a mental hurdle (as you allude to) than a physical difficulty. Once begun, it’s a really easy (and fun!) process.

        I think that one of the biggest problems is making the perfect the enemy of the good. Start with small things (slowly increase the number of meals you cook at home, or take public transit a little more often, or put a couple game systems up for sale on craigslist) that won’t threaten your current way of life too much. Then track your progress. That part is really important. Keep track of your “typical” expenses before you really begin. Then track the changes over time. It’s addictive, and you begin to really reinforce the relationship between behavior and money. It becomes a game in itself.

        As you begin to unplug, you’ll realize you have more time, not less. More money, not less. More interaction, not less. More creativity, not less. And these things don’t come at the cost implied by consumptive society.

        It is most certainly *not* a prescription for log cabin-dwelling survivalism or lonely, “spartan” living. We hardly live an ascetic life of self-denial. We have more of a social life than ever before, and more money to devote to our true interests (as opposed to casual hobbies, which tend to cost far more than they deliver in value). Our co-workers and friends never even knew we were living according to a different philosophy.

        I know it sounds like a hippie pipe dream, but we’re hardly the unwashed hippy free-lovers you’d expect. I’m one of the laziest, least disciplined people on the planet. If I could trim my consumption, it really can’t be that hard (although I have a damn good woman helping me out). The only reason I see other people failing at this is because they overestimate the value of their time, “ownership” (especially of depreciating assets) and other intangibles.

        For what it’s worth, I posted an eerily similar entry to yours on my blog around the time this process began for us, in late 2008:

        • That’s an extremely interesting view of the start of the process. Do you have an “after” post?

          From your story, it seems your wife’s spartan/frugal instincts were critical though. I suspect you may be underestimating how crucial and rare that is :)

          • She absolutely was necessary in my process. Anybody claiming to have done anything in life alone is not to be trusted, and I hope it didn’t come across as though I am a self-made home finance genius. However, I hardly think that *not* having someone like her is a viable excuse for not escaping the cycle of consumption.

            She opened my eyes to the reality of the situation, but she never dragged me down the road. That particular role that she played could just have easily been a parent, co-worker or book. She provided the spark, the “Aha!” moment, the ability to translate what I considered to be random behavior into a pattern that was understandable for me.

            But she was far from perfect. Hell, she had the occasional lapse, just as I did. Once we had established a pattern, we kept tabs on each other. She didn’t have a formalized process until we both sat down and worked things out explicitly. We discovered the road together, and it wasn’t so difficult once we began. Like most things, the hardest part is starting.

            As for why I haven’t written more on the subject, well… one of the results of the process was that I stopped writing about my life so much and started living it. The dropoff in blog posts corresponds almost linearly with an uptick in memorable, life-changing experiences.

            But you raise a good point… I should probably do a follow-up.

  38. You ask: “Is there any kind of escape that does not involve couponing on the edge of hoarding-madness, or log-cabin survivalism?”

    I suggest: Yes.

    Individually Sovereign, Universally Distributable, Privately Owned You.

    Where you begin has a lot to say about where you end. It is true, socio-economics is a fantasy. Money is an invention, a figment of our imagination. All of its purposes follow suit. Disney World consumes us as consumers.

    Individuals may escape. Humanity is made of few. To think otherwise is to be confused by your micro view on the macro reality. But you possess an opportunity.

    Owning yourself is a mirrored reality. There is an authentic you. At least once in a while, you are you. But life on this planet is not about you alone. You exist within countless dynamic community visions… points of view… mirrored images of your life. And in those other moments, currently, you are a slave. You are a slave IDentity.

    Increasingly, your digital existence as an IDentity-slave is reducing your role on this planet towards the definition of consumer you so aptly stated. The irony is that owning yourself simultaneously means that you own freedom and slavery in the same act. And yet, unless you are owned by yourself, there is no opportunity for you to command your escape from both hoarding madness or log-cabin survivalism.

    You and you alone will decide what you are.

    Wealthy, free, accountable, off-grid, self-sufficient, collaborative, in love… still you will never escape the effects of the consumer hoards that envelope you mindlessly. Our only hope is to manage opportunity itself by making every Individual equally accountable for ALL of their actions… as OWNERS.

    In a socio-economic system, the only freedom worth possessing is the freedom you OWN.

    The only escape is engineered… continuously.

  39. Fred Mailhot says

    “[…] elevates Tolkien’s works to a near-literary status.”

    Ouch…otherwise an excellent and thought-provoking post. I discovered you today via a link to The Gervais Principle, and then followed a trail here. Both left me with much to ruminate on especially w.r.t the mapping of the “losers < clueless < sociopaths" hierarchy to academia.

    I'll be keeping an eye on this space and your Twitter feed. Kudos & thanks.

  40. I jumped here from a really old post where I mildly sperged out about some statements you made about LOTR.

    Lord of the Rings is notoriously friendly to analogy but ultimately very resistant to any attempt at complete understanding. That said, Gollum is a useful metaphor for consumer addiction. The key insight you make here is that this behavior is at the center, not fringes of consumerism.

    There is an increasingly visible meme floating around in regards to social networking sites that says “you are the product”. I would argue that this is nothing new. Consumerism has always involved the exchange of a good or service for a combination of money, time, and identity. Economics might say that currency can serve as an unencumbered proxy for making the exchange, but I view it as a little more complex than that.

    In a social networking context, it’s easy to see. Instead of forfeiting your cash, you actively participate on the site. Engagement is the metric used for this. Engagement could be thought of as a proxy for the other thing you’re giving up, Identity. As you said, in the social networking context you are defined by your “likes”. This goes beyond the mere translation of a real person into constrained categories and interactions; a common rationale behind social network valuations is that engagement yields predictive power. In other words, your very identity becomes grafted to the network.

    What I’m arguing is that to a lesser degree, this exchange exists even in classic consumer transactions. Let’s look at mortgages (not traditionally considered a consumer good but bear with me). If you have the money, you can choose to buy some freedom from the other two concerns. Money in an interest earning account that is put away to automatically pay a mortgage every month will consume very little time for the owner, nor will they as a person be impacted significantly by its existence. A complex, adjustable rate mortgage saves you money, but requires more active management (translate to stress for many owners of these). If your salary is paying off the mortgage, your sense of wealth might also be a lot more attached to a single variable in this product. A more obvious and visible example of the identity trade is branded clothing or cars, but mortgages are interesting in that they seem to have become a consumer product somewhat recently, while originally being a sober financial instrument.

    The somewhat perverse part is that all the money in the world won’t let you fully escape this dynamic if you play the game. Whether by shifting baselines or a willing and direct sacrifice of identity by attaching it to a brand or material thing, the house always wins.

    Gollum represents this fundamental exchange taken to its absurd conclusion. He has been granted nearly unlimited life, but must spend it thinking about a single object of desire, by which he defines himself entirely. When he had the ring, he could have used it to steal great wealth, but it demanded much greater sacrifice. You touched on this when talking about couponers, and I’ve tried to define it a bit further. As you point out, the Gollumized lend legitimacy to and help institutionalize the dynamic. They must, as it is now an almost inseparable part of them.

    There is a point in the story where Smeagol is almost able to break the bonds of servitude to the ring, thanks to his cautious but fundamentally wholesome hobbit companions. Through their trust and companionship, the disease is almost purged. It’s a sad observation / commentary that despite the depth of his madness, this is all it took. It was through Man (Faramir) that this near coming around was interrupted. He was a member of the new human order, with its own institutions and traditions. Gollum was a monster, not to be understood but destroyed. Mankind did not directly serve the ring, but represented the legible in the story, and Gollum was already put in the “monster” bin.

    I’ve been enjoying looking at all sorts of old things through the lens of legibility and think that it can be useful in understanding LOTR. The story is, in essence, part of a slow transition from a mostly illegible world full of wonder and magic to a legible world of human institutions, laws, etc. As I mentioned in my other comment, the ring is a fundamental part of that, its creation being what turned around the pendulum and made the rise of man inevitable.

  41. Another character who comes to mind is No-Face from the movie “Spirited Away”. (I guess also from Japanese mythology?) He takes on characteristics /voices of the people he swallows. He consumes everything in sight, without getting any happier — just hungrier.

  42. A little late to the party here – I just came across this post and now have 10 other tabs open to read later :)

    You and I may not find meaning in certain things, but does that mean they always corrupt? It seems like most people don’t exist at the extremes of living to survive and complete devotion to a higher purpose. If we aren’t trying to change that, there is room for things that are unproductive and slightly meaningless but can be considered entertaining. Smartphones and corporations are similar to sugar, salt, and fat. You don’t want too little or too much.

    In technology we see a parallel activity with people who create elaborately complex systems that aren’t practical but impress them and other technical people. Ordinary people might consider them “geeks in a basement” but it’s not that different from identifying yourself by brands. Is the geeky version less dangerous because it doesn’t involve serving other people? Or is it all the same thing, mildly entertaining and purposeful but not the highest meaning we could find in our life?

    Depending on your perspective, writing and commenting on blog posts can even fall into the same category :)

  43. I wonder how much of Sirot’s behavior is real and how much is an act to help drive income. How much to hire someone to hold a spatula for an ad? You could probably buy rights on one of those websites that sell those kind of pictures for a few bucks.

    Now, you have Sirot there on national TV talking about superstar hands that never see the light of day. A scratch or tone can easily be altered with photoshop, so for her continued employment, she needs to advertise the unique quality of her handz, which she does a good job of.

    Like that guy Beck that was on Fox News. Is he really crazy…the nazizzzz are coming…. More likely he knows his audience and has created a market for crazy that network TV didn’t know existed.

  44. You struck home, both with the wonderful metaphor of Gollum/Smeagol being an example of rabid consumerism (like far too many people, I loved LotR) and teh creepy hand lady… *shudders*

    What held me is how you brought in the concept of Hoarders and Extreme Couponing, because I grew up in a house that had both, and it’s something I both fight with and live with every day.

    Have you seen the book The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar where she speaks about how people from former Soviet regions considered viewed soda selections? If not, here is a link to the Google Books entry for that section: You may find it interesting

  45. Have you read Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness essay?

    He basically concludes that, from here on in, we would be right to be sceptical of new technology (in an superficially luddite way).

  46. How sad is that. After you write this post denouncing Gollums and raving fans, and people who just mindlessly consume the very first comments are by golums of your blog. “Great Article again, as always” “cool thoughts” “you’re always right!”

    I think that being a Gollum is just a part of human nature. Maybe not one we are particularly proud of, but an integral component nonetheless. Obsession and addiction have been part of humanity throughout the entirety of history.

    Even with blatant consumerism, the exploitation is not one-sided. The consumer may become obsessed with the product, but the producer can become obsessed with something else: money, status, or any number of things. No one is safe.

    Even with the hand model, it’s not onesided. She may be obssesed with her hands, but so are many other people. After all, someone is willing to pay her $1000 per hour for her hands.

    Even you Venkat. You’ve put so much time and effort into this blog. I wonder if you are becoming a Gollum yourself? Or perhaps you have become obsessed with knowledge: consuming thoughts and ideas instead of physical items?

    In the end, I think this “Gollum Effect” you describe encompasses more than just the consumer industry. It is present in every human field of activity. Anything a person can do is something that can make them a Gollum.

    But that may not be such a bad thing. For example an obsessed charity worker could raise billions to help people in need. An obsessed military commander spends all his time consumed by making war plans, and as a result of this his army wins the war. Of course there is a sacrifice of the individual to the obsession, but that can result in a net gain for his society.

    • The Gollumnization of Mrs. Sirot lies not in an intense and time consuming dedication and care to her hands but in an alienation and perversion of hand-being. The ironic plot of having perfect hands is that those hands are something other than hands in an ordinary sense. Same with the ring fetish in the “Lord Of The Rings” which alienates Smeagol into Gollum because it is bewitched. There is a reciprocal perversion of both the subject and the object.

      This relationship exceeds the banality of “being obsessed” in a colloquial sense.
      If someone is “obsessed” with writing, helping people, programming and mountain climbing and the object of this obsession is, in the very end, just another text, sane people, a program and a mountain, there is no fetishism at play and the mountain is neither a Gollumnizer nor is the climber a Gollum. It would be something different when the author believes to have created a holy text. Usually religious orthodoxy prevents this kind of perversion of authorship and cultivates one which is inaccessible and inevitably lost in time – for good reasons.

      • Thanks, now I don’t have to do the rebuttal.

        I also like the rough litmus test in the comment by Mr. Pinto quoting somebody on HN:

        “When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. So create.”

        It relies on a somewhat fuzzy set of terms (create, tastes, ability), but there’s a robust test for gollum/non-gollum in there somewhere. Maybe I’ll try to tease it out one of these days.

  47. Thoughtful – chewy piece. Thank you!