Product Bias: The End of the Romance


November 5, 2005


Browse in Technology

You’ve heard about the new iPod video player and believe me, this is big. Now kids will be able to watch movies behind their textbooks in class. They’ll have another way to sit in the back seat and ignore their parents on family car trips. I mean, we wouldn’t want parents and kids actually to talk with one another.

That’s not all. The iPod has spawned a host of devices that enable people to use them while driving. Harmon-Kardon makes one called the Drive + Play, which includes a remote screen you stick on the dashboard and a sort of mini-joystick to put near the gear shift. (Cost: $199.00) I don’t know if this works with video iPods – yet – but the audio version is bad enough.

The first thing they tell you in traffic school is not to take your eyes off the road. Ever. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had close calls just taking a quick glance at the heater setting. So now the bozos out there are going to be searching for Coldplay on the screen or getting pumped as the Terminator excises his foes. Makes you feel good that your kids are out on their bikes, no?

It is no secret that new technologies have impacts like this. All it takes to be aware of them is eyes and ears. Yet the media seems oblivious. Most of the early reporting on the iPod video was of the techno-schmoochfest variety summed up in the Business Week column called (I’m not kidding) “Video iPod, I love you.”

It’s not just iPods. Cell phone video, video games, potions and pills get the same fawning treatment. Car reviews still read as though written by people with the psycho-emotional development of 17 year olds. The reporting on HDTV has been almost catatonically unaware of a most basic question: does this country really need something that will make television even more seductive to kids – and to the rest of us too, for that matter.

Far more powerful than the alleged “liberal” bias of the media is the product bias, especially when those products involve technology. This is the master narrative, the assumption that drives much of the reporting about the economy. It also crowds out other narratives, including that of the commons. The reasons product bias has such a grip on the journalistic mind, say a lot about why the media is so resistant to the concept of the commons, and to the possibility that productivity and value might lie outside the market and the products it creates.

The obvious explanation is advertising. Commercial media depends upon it. Most ads are for products; and so publishers are loathe to bite the hands that feed them. The influence of advertisers is undeniable and growing. But it is not the whole story. The issue of Business Week that carried the wet kiss for video iPods didn’t have an Apple ad. (It did have another story touting new devices to plug iPod audio into home stereo systems.)

Sure, there’s always the concern about future ads, and about what’s called a “product-friendly editorial environment.” This is especially important at a time when print publications are struggling. Still, there’s more to it than that. Much goes back to the conventional economic logic itself, which is the silent subtext for reporting of this kind.

The conventional model is based upon a dyad. The core reality is the transaction between two parties, a buyer and a seller. This transaction is inherently legitimate. Everything else is an “externality,” a second-tier reality that generally is ignored. Thus the imbecile shouting into the cell phone in the movie theater is the core reality. The annoyance for everyone else is an “externality”

In this construct moreover buyers are always “rational.” They know exactly what they want and what provides “utility” for them; and so their choices are inherently good ones. (The notion of utility in economics is a big fudge, but I’ll leave that for another time.) On top of all that, the model regards products as good by definition. The assumption is built into the language. Products are goods, and goods cannot be bad.

These assumptions drive the master narrative. They reinforce, and provide august authority for, the cultural romance with technology and the notion that progress comes always on the wings of new things to buy. Providing a soundtrack for all this is the nation’s central measure of progress, the GDP, which embodies these assumptions to an almost comic degree, and which the media follows slavishly.

The resulting pull on the journalistic mind that is almost irresistible. It’s not something the editors tell you; you absorb it from the newsroom air. It takes a major effort, almost like overcoming gravity, to bring to products the kind of healthy skepticism often brought to policy (even though products are a kind of policy.) There is little room left for a different narrative that regards the impacts on the many – ie “externalities” – as equally important as the enjoyment (if it is enjoyment) of the one.

Such a narrative becomes vaguely subversive. So too is the possibility that value might arise from anything besides products bought for money, and that productivity might reside in something other than the corporate machinery that produces these. The creative synergies of the internet, the way wetlands cleanse the water and provide buffers against storms – commons productivities such as these are cordoned off into a separate compartment from the main script. They are summoned only episodically, and then quickly put away again.

Have you noticed how the journalistic follow-up to Katrina has focused almost entirely on the failures of FEMA, which is to say the Washington story. The commons story, the destruction of the Lousiana wetlands by the oil industry, has sunk from view.

There are signs that this is changing, though. The social impacts of products such as cell phones have become too great to ignore. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a column on how kids have retreated into electronic cocoons from which they have little contact with their parents or the tactile world. The column generated such a response that the writer devoted another one a few weeks later to the comments that came in.

It’s going to become increasingly hard to maintain the romance of stuff in the face of intruding realities such as this. (A major problem though is the narrow fixation of the American Left on physical impacts such as cancer. Cell phones for example can be questioned only if they pose a cancer risk to users, not if they corrode the interactions in the home.)

At the same time the notion of the infallible, utility-maximizing consumer is collapsing too. Addiction for example has become a trademark affliction of the age. People are becoming addicted not just to tobacco, drink and drugs – the stock vices – but also to video games, cell phones, web surfing, junk food, cosmetic surgery, credit card debt, and shopping period. That’s a pretty broad swath of the economy right there.

Addiction is a phenomenon for which the conventional economic model has no answer. The “rational” consumer is the moral anchor of the narrative, and the claim to “efficiency” of the entire system. So if people increasingly buy things that are bad not just for everyone else, but for themselves as well — and that they don’t really want to begin with — then the whole belief system starts to go kerplooey.

The problem then is not just “externalities.” It’s internalities as well – a breakdown in the supposed core reality of buyer and seller. Don’t look for Alan Greenspan to acknowledge this. But he’s getting out at a good time.

We’ll see how long it takes for stories to appear on how video iPods are causing conflicts in the classroom, and how drivers distracted by them are crashing into kids. Who knows? This could be the autumn of the romance, the desperate last fling in the love affair with stuff. It seems that at the very least we are on the downside. The question now is, when the crash comes, will we advocates of the commons be ready with a new and more appealing script?