Elections have been on my mind for the last several days, and more specifically how our immediate social and cultural environment might influence how we feel about them. There’s two features of our consumer culture that have grown more pervasive in the last decade: instant gratification and customization.
Streaming services put thousands of entertainment options a click away, and they keep track of what we’ve liked so that they tailor what subset they display to us first based precisely on our preferences. The days of driving to the video store and having to slog through everyone else’s pedestrian tastes are over.
Spotify puts thousands of songs at my fingertips. At any given moment I can take a small device out of my pocket and play any song no matter how obscure. It’s hard to even think of the time when I had one alternative radio station to listen to. I had to listen through whatever was the annoying alt hit of the day-god Fastball I still hate you for “The Way”-multiple times to get to a song I might enjoy. Might being the key word there.
Not only does Spotify give me access to an unfathomable catalog, but it makes playlists based entirely on what I have listened to it the past. It lets me almost entirely check out of music I don’t enjoy in ways I wouldn’t have imagined fifteen years ago. Oh how I wish I could know as little about Brittany Spears as I do Halsey, the latter I only encountered when she was a guest on Saturday Night Live.
Amazon gives me access to thousands of products all of which I can order from my couch saving me from a trip to Lowes, Target, or Kroger. It remembers what I have ordered in the past better than I do, and shows me products that are most likely to please me. Amazon never shows me Funions, because it knows I am a Cheetos fan. Unlike an actual trip to Kroger, where I am confronted with a aisle end cap with a Funion display reminding me that other people like other things. And although that in itself isn’t offensive having to go looking for the Cheetos is.
Voting doesn’t have any of these features. It doesn’t provide unlimited choices. It isn’t instant, as political change is by nature slow and often requires compromise. It is in no way tailored to our individual tastes.
If Starbucks worked like voting, they would put up a mocha frapuccino against a white chocolate mocha for a vote. And then they would just serve the one winning beverage all day. Imagine the rage if they moved to this business model. And god help you if you’re a red-eye drinker. No one likes those, except you folks who secretly hate yourselves. Those will never be one of the choices, and even if by some chance it is one of the two up for a vote there’s no way it’s winning. And it’s because they taste like licking an ashtray that was filled with hate.
Voting feels so frustrating because it’s one of the few ways we must confront sharing with others. Many others. And some of those others think Bill Gates is trying to insert a chip into us under the premise of healthcare. And we have to make decisions with those people.
A fundamental American value has betrayed us. Individualism. I am the captain of my own ship. Until another ship cuts me off in traffic. Or until a neighboring ship fails to trim a dead tree in their yard and it falls on my ship. Or until we have to go into a voting booth and we are looking at two candidates that we do not enjoy and wonder how our ship ended up in this cul de sac.
In times past I think we culturally had a more balanced view of weighing the individual vs collective. I wonder if it’s possible to retake that balance when so much of our consumer lives obliterates having to acknowledge others? One of the fundamental requirements for building community is having a shared reality. It seems we don’t have that now, and I cannot foresee us having it in the future.
So what then? I haven’t the slightest idea. I guess we just have to feel grateful that Starbucks offers more variety than just the winning frapuccino of the day, and sit here without healthcare.