The Costs of Human Widgetry

Two great pieces of writing were brought to my attention, the overlap seems obvious. What they both speak of is what I might call, human widgetry. That is the comodification of the human condition. It is about reducing the value of anything that can’t be monetized to zero, whether it is a final moment with a loved one or the free thinking of a 2 year old. In human widgetry, if you can’t slap a label on it, embed a jingle in it, or consume your way through it, it is probably part of a socialist agenda.

You can widgetize something as simple as a picnic – it involves numerous choices in consumption, just think of the commercial. Where will we go /how much gas will we use to get there?, where will we park/does it cost money?, how long will we hike?, will we need hand sanitizer?, will we need windbreakers or raingear?, how big of a watter bottle should we bring? is it BPA free? do we have one for the dog? where are the doggie doo bags? which leash and collar should we bring? do we have a water dish? what kind of food do we have? did we bring a cooler? or backpack? where do we put the plastic wrap? is this blanket big enough? I’ll rewash these. why did I wear these shoes?

Thomas Friedman, in his column in the NY Times, speaks of our intimate spaces being invaded while reviewing a book of Michael Sandel’s,

I had no idea that in the year 2000, as Sandel notes, “a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space,” or that in 2001, the British novelist Fay Weldon wrote a book commissioned by the jewelry company Bulgari and that, in exchange for payment, “the author agreed to mention Bulgari jewelry in the novel at least a dozen times.” I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now “even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event,” writes Sandel. “New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base. When the umpire calls the runner safe at home plate, a corporate logo appears on the television screen, and the play-by-play announcer must say, ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life.’ ”

And while I knew that retired baseball players sell their autographs for $15 a pop, I had no idea that Pete Rose, who was banished from baseball for life for betting, has a Web site that, Sandel writes, “sells memorabilia related to his banishment. For $299, plus shipping and handling, you can buy a baseball autographed by Rose and inscribed with an apology: ‘I’m sorry I bet on baseball.’ For $500, Rose will send you an autographed copy of the document banishing him from the game.”

I had no idea that in 2001 an elementary school in New Jersey became America’s first public school “to sell naming rights to a corporate sponsor,” Sandel writes.“In exchange for a $100,000 donation from a local supermarket, it renamed its gym ‘ShopRite of Brooklawn Center.’ … A high school in Newburyport, Mass., offered naming rights to the principal’s office for $10,000. … By 2011, seven states had approved advertising on the sides of school buses.”

If you can imagine the audience, you can sell the venue I suppose. You might be able to avoid buying a particular novel to avoid the product placement in a book, but it is hard to avert eyes from a glaringly hideous animated billboard against an otherwise gorgeous natural backdrop. Product placement isn’t always as obvious as getting name drops either. Marketers are professionals at stimulating the consumer’s primal instinct in order to part with their money.  They are obviously good at it as our debt and income disparity can attest. It is no wonder the prosperity doctrine is so popular right now, what other mechanism could justify the gluttonous behavior as righteous?

Chris Hedges picks up where Friedman leaves off. Hedges recognizes crazy when he sees it. In continuing our consumptive culture with only a nod to its imminently destructive nature, Hedges calls us out and mentions how many fell before us,

When civilizations start to die they go insane. Let the ice sheets in the Arctic melt. Let the temperatures rise. Let the air, soil and water be poisoned. Let the forests die. Let the seas be emptied of life. Let one useless war after another be waged. Let the masses be thrust into extreme poverty and left without jobs while the elites, drunk on hedonism, accumulate vast fortunes through exploitation, speculation, fraud and theft. Reality, at the end, gets unplugged. We live in an age when news consists of Snooki’s pregnancy, Hulk Hogan’s sex tape and Kim Kardashian’s denial that she is the naked woman cooking eggs in a photo circulating on the Internet. Politicians, including presidents, appear on late night comedy shows to do gags and they campaign on issues such as creating a moon colony. “At times when the page is turning,” Louis-Ferdinand Celine wrote in “Castle to Castle,” “when History brings all the nuts together, opens its Epic Dance Halls! hats and heads in the whirlwind! Panties overboard!”

The quest by a bankrupt elite in the final days of empire to accumulate greater and greater wealth, as Karl Marx observed, is modern society’s version of primitive fetishism. This quest, as there is less and less to exploit, leads to mounting repression, increased human suffering, a collapse of infrastructure and, finally, collective death. It is the self-deluded, those on Wall Street or among the political elite, those who entertain and inform us, those who lack the capacity to question the lusts that will ensure our self-annihilation, who are held up as exemplars of intelligence, success and progress. The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression—which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide. Welcome to the asylum.

When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of “primitive” societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology. Those who held on to pre-modern beliefs, such as Native Americans, who structured themselves around a communal life and self-sacrifice rather than hoarding and wage exploitation, could not be accommodated within the ethic of capitalist exploitation, the cult of the self and the lust for imperial expansion. The prosaic was pitted against the allegorical. And as we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive.

We look into the abyss that is the mystery of human history. We look at Easter Island, hear tales of Atlantis, and wonder about the demise of ancient kingdoms even as we keep marching toward a preventable climax of consumption vs. the end of usable resources.

Our system is broken. The two parties aren’t addressing the issues in dire need of addressing. What does self preservation mean to you? Is it only about your individual self? Your family? Your broader community? Your ideology? Your race? Your nation? Human kind? Where will you draw that line that enough is enough?

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One thought on “The Costs of Human Widgetry

  1. adam strange says:

    great stuff. i often say that the gulf between “responsibility” and “personal responsibility” is enormous. personal responsibility is just the other side of self-interest, formally known as selfishness.

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