I found Thomas Hine’s “I Want That” while browsing through the Friends of East Grand Rapids book sale with Brandon a few months back. When it comes to consumption, books are one of my greatest weaknesses. The book’s claim to be a cultural history of shopping was a little too much to resist for someone who, from time to time, finds himself fascinated by consumerism.
The opening gambit of the piece is that shopping/consumption is both the most potent tool we have for establishing our identity, and an activity inextricably tied in with societal changes over the past few centuries. Hine traces the development of shopping from the Athenian Agora, through medieval European markets, to the birth of department stores and on to modern North American malls. He does a good job of demonstrating the social and psychological thinking behind the changes, and whether intentionally or not shows the moral amiguity of many of the decisions.
In parallel, we see how shifts in shopping patterns in major European cities often coincided with shifts in prominence of royal courts, and the move from agrarian to industrial society. The increasing dispersal of ‘objects’ through the population came enmeshed with changing aspirations. It is easy for those of us deeply cynical about consumerist pressures to ignore the fact that those shifts in aspirations have played a role in the democratisation of our societies, even if they have since lost touch with that foundation.
Hine argues that shopping is the purest embodiment of the ‘right to choose’ that so many see as fundamental. It is in that right that one of the greatest dichotomies and the most difficult questions of consumerism arise; the extent to which we are conditioned and pressured can be extremely difficult to measure, and the ‘reality’ of the decisions we make is usually hard to ascertain. For that latter issue he uses the example of how the same brand of furniture can be sold in numerous stores in widely different contexts, resulting in consumers believing they have made significantly ‘individual’ choices when in fact they have simply bought the same product as all their neighbours.
It would have been good to see him digging deeper into the hidden costs that become more insidious as consumption is increasingly divorced from production. While he touches on the fact that personal interaction–particularly with producers–during the shopping process often leads to reduced levels of consumption, not much is made of the fact that our choices often come at the cost of others’ rights. For example in those cases where, in order to appeal to transnational corporations, governments undercut their own economies and sentence many of their citizens to sweatshop labour in tax-free zones.
Similarly overlooked are the environmental and societal costs of increased suburbanization and the move towards the shopping experience taking place entirely in privately owned and operated environments. While these issues are arguably secondary to the cultural history presented, they are useful corollaries when trying to assess the impact of that history on our present and future.
Of all the salient anecdotes in the book, it is that reinforcement of the fact that human interaction leads to reduced consumption that will probably linger with me longest (though the phrase “When we head off to Eden nowadays, we carry our own snakes” will stick around too). It is a useful reminder that supporting local businesses is not only an important way to bolster our local communities, but it is also likely to help us keep track of our consumption habits.