The following is an excerpt from my new book Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. You can order it on Amazon or get a signed copy from Barnes and Noble. You can order internationally from a list of vendors here.
It must be an odd time to be a super-successful businessperson. On the one hand, business is better than ever. There’s more wealth in the world than ever before, profits are breaking all-time highs, productivity and growth are doing great. Yet, meanwhile, income inequality is skyrocketing, political polarization is ruining everyone’s family gatherings, and there seems to be a plague of corruption spreading across the world.
So, while there’s exuberance in the business world, there’s also a weird sort of defensiveness that sometimes comes out of nowhere. And this defensiveness, I’ve noticed, always takes the same form, no matter whom it comes from. It says: “We’re just giving people what they want!”
Whether it’s oil companies or creepy advertisers or Facebook stealing your damn data, every corporation that steps in some shit scrapes off their boot by frantically reminding everyone how they’re just trying to give people what they want—faster download speeds, more comfortable air-conditioning, better gas mileage, a cheaper nose hair trimmer—and how wrong can that be?
And it is true. Technology gives people what they want faster and more efficiently than ever before. And while we all love to dogpile on the corporate overlords for their ethical faceplants, we forget that they’re merely fulfilling the market’s desires. They’re supplying our demands. And if we got rid of Facebook or BP or whatever-giant-corporation-is-considered-evil-when-you-read-this, another would pop up to take its place.
So, maybe the problem isn’t just a bunch of greedy executives tapping cigars and petting evil cats while laughing hysterically at how much money they’re making.
Maybe what we want sucks.
For example, I want a life-size bag of marshmallows in my living room. I want to buy an eight-million-dollar mansion by borrowing money I can never pay back. I want to fly to a new beach every week for the next year and live off nothing but Wagyu steaks.
What I want is fucking terrible. That’s because my Feeling Brain is in charge of what I want, and my Feeling Brain is like a goddamn chimpanzee who just drank a bottle of tequila and then proceeded to jerk off into it.
Therefore, I’d say that “give the people what they want” is a pretty low bar to clear, ethically speaking. “Give the people what they want” works only when you’re giving them innovations, like a synthetic kidney or something to prevent their car from spontaneously catching on fire. Give those people what they want. But giving people too many of the diversions they want is a dangerous game to play. For one, many people want stuff that’s awful. Two, many people are easily manipulated into wanting shit they don’t actually want. Three, encouraging people to avoid pain through more and more diversions makes us all weaker and more fragile. And four, I don’t want your fucking Skynet ads following me around wherever I go and mining my fucking life for data. Look, I talked to my wife that one time about a trip to Peru—that doesn’t mean you need to flood my phone with pictures of Machu Picchu for the next six weeks. And seriously, stop listening to my fucking conversations and selling my data to anyone and everyone who will pay you a buck.1
Anyway—where was I?
Strangely, a young hotshot marketer in the 1920s named Edward Bernays saw all this coming. The creepy ads and the privacy invasion and the lulling of large populations into docile servitude through mindless consumerism—the dude was kind of a genius. Except, he was all in favor of it—so, make that an evil genius.
Bernays’s political beliefs were appalling. He believed in what I suppose you could call “diet fascism”: same evil authoritarian government but without the unnecessary genocidal calories. Bernays believed that the masses were dangerous and needed to be controlled by a strong centralized state. But he also recognized that bloody totalitarian regimes were not exactly ideal. For him, the new science of marketing offered a way for governments to influence and appease their citizens without the burden of having to maim and torture them left, right, and center.2
(The dude must have been a hit at parties.)
Bernays believed that freedom for most people was both impossible and dangerous. He was well aware that the last thing a society should tolerate was everyone’s Feeling Brains running the show.3 Societies needed order and hierarchy and authority, and freedom was antithetical to those things. He saw marketing as an incredible new tool that could give people the feeling of having freedom when, really, you’re just giving them a few more flavors of toothpaste to choose from.
Thankfully, Western governments (for the most part) never sank so low as to directly manipulate their populations through ad campaigns. Instead, the opposite happened. The corporate world got so good at giving people what they wanted that they gradually gained more and more political power for themselves. Regulations were torn up. Bureaucratic oversight was ended. Privacy eroded. Money got more enmeshed with politics than ever before. And why did it all happen? You should know by now: they were just giving the people what they wanted!
But, fuck it, let’s be real: “Give the people what they want” is just #FakeFreedom because what most of us want are diversions. And when we get flooded by diversions, a few things happen.
The first is that we become increasingly fragile. Our world shrinks to conform to the size of our ever-diminishing values. We become obsessed with comfort and pleasure. And any possible loss of that pleasure feels world-quaking and cosmically unfair to us. I would argue that a narrowing of our conceptual world is not freedom; it is the opposite.
The second thing that happens is that we become prone to a series of low-level addictive behaviors—compulsively checking our phone, our email, our Instagram; compulsively finishing Netflix series we don’t like; sharing outrage-inducing articles we haven’t read; accepting invitations to parties and events we don’t enjoy; traveling not because we want to but because we want to be able to say we went. Compulsive behavior aimed at experiencing more stuff is not freedom—again, it’s kind of the opposite.
Third thing: an inability to identify, tolerate, and seek out negative emotions is its own kind of confinement. If you feel okay only when life is happy and easy-breezy-beautiful-Cover-Girl, then guess what? You are not free. You are the opposite of free. You are the prisoner of your own indulgences, enslaved by your own intolerance, crippled by your own emotional weakness. You will constantly feel a need for some external comfort or validation that may or may not ever come.
Fourth—because, fuck it, I’m on a roll: the paradox of choice. The more options we’re given (i.e., the more “freedom” we have), the less satisfied we are with whatever option we go with.4 If Jane has to choose between two boxes of cereal, and Mike can choose from twenty boxes, Mike does not have more freedom than Jane. He has more variety. There’s a difference. Variety is not freedom. Variety is just different permutations of the same meaningless shit. If, instead, Jane had a gun pointed to her head and a guy in an SS uniform screaming, “Eat ze fuckin’ zereal!” in a really bad Bavarian accent, then Jane would have less freedom than Mike. But call me up when that happens.
This is the problem with exalting freedom over human consciousness. More stuff doesn’t make us freer, it imprisons us with anxiety over whether we chose or did the best thing. More stuff causes us to become more prone to treating ourselves and others as means rather than ends. It makes us more dependent on the endless cycles of hope.
If the pursuit of happiness pulls us all back into childishness, then fake freedom conspires to keep us there. Because freedom is not having more brands of cereal to choose from, or more beach vacations to take selfies on, or more satellite channels to fall asleep to.
That is variety. And in a vacuum, variety is meaningless. If you are trapped by insecurity, stymied by doubt, and hamstrung by intolerance, you can have all the variety in the world. But you are not free.
- Not only is this sort of surveillance creepy, but it’s a perfect illustration of a tech company treating its customers as mere means rather than ends. In fact, I would argue that the feeling of creepiness is itself the sen- sation of being treated as merely a means. Even though we “opt in” to these services that harvest our data, we’re not fully knowledgeable and/or aware of this; therefore, it feels as though we haven’t consented. This feeling of nonconsent is what makes us feel disrespected and treated as a means, and is therefore why we get upset. See K. Tiffany, “The Perennial Debate About Whether Your Phone Is Secretly Listening to You, Explained” Vox, Dec 28, 2018.↵
- You know, because torture doesn’t scale well.↵
- In fact, one of the main reasons he was so aware of this was that he was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. I wrote more about Bernays and modern advertising in a post called How Your Insecurity Is Bought and Sold.↵
- Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (New York: HarperCollins Ecco, 2004).↵