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Originally published Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 4:13 PM

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Guest: The slide toward an impulse society, thanks to big data and Amazon.com

Thoughtful consumerism isn’t so easy these days — in many ways, it’s getting harder as the marketplace gets better at targeting what shoppers want, writes guest columnist Paul Roberts.


Special to The Times

Author reading

Paul Roberts will talk about his new book “The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification” at a Town Hall Seattle event on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5.

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I TRY to be a conscientious consumer. Buy local when I can. Avoid multinationals that blatantly exploit their workers. Help my kids understand why newer and faster aren’t always better. But thoughtful consumerism isn’t so easy these days — in many ways, it’s getting harder as the consumer marketplace gets better at getting under my skin.

Take Amazon.com. The mega-retailer makes buying so quick and effortless — with personalized recommendations, free two-day shipping — that each purchase doesn’t really feel like an act with social implications I need to think through.

Just look at the company’s newest offering: Fire, a smartphone designed expressly for showrooming, or buying products online after you’ve checked them out at some hapless local retailer.

In seconds, Fire not only identifies the product, but opens a link so you can order from Amazon while still in the store. Point, click, and transact so fast you may not even realize you’ve just undercut the livelihood of the sales clerk who helped you find the correct display aisle.

To be fair, this is hardly the first instance where our quest for gratification in the consumer marketplace has left someone else in the lurch.

Back in the 1970s, when big-box retailers introduced massive selection and discounts, shoppers were so quick to abandon local stores that many downtowns became ghost towns. And in the 1990s, many of us upgraded to large, powerful cars that enhanced our sense of personal security at the expense of everyone else’s.

But consumption today is becoming such a fast and furious game that putting our self-interest ahead of the interests of others no longer seems the exception, but the rule.

In part, that reflects new technologies that keep making it easier to pursue our personal agendas. But it’s also a reflection of a business model that supplies consumers with massive quantities of agenda-pursuing power — more horsepower, say, or more disruptive smartphones — because that’s the quickest route to corporate profits. In short, our individual pursuit of happiness has become tangled with, and redirected by, industry’s pursuit of profits.

Little surprise then, that so much personal consumption now works against not only broader community interests, but our individual interests, as well. Thanks to an ever-rising supply of easy consumer credit, it’s all too easy to drown in debt. Our hyper-convenient food system makes it simple to destroy our health. Patience and self-discipline, the values we try to teach our children, seem quaint and obsolete in a consumer marketplace that promises to gratify every appetite, at any time, and at 40 percent off.

This is hardly the enlightened self-interest that economist Adam Smith or historian Alexis de Tocqueville saw as essential to a capitalist, classically liberal society. Rather, it is a self-interest that is becoming too short-term and self-destructive to drive real progress. It’s as if the blindly bottom-line, crash-the-economy values of the marketplace have become our personal values, as well.

These temptations will only intensify with the era of Big Data. Already companies know us so well based on the information we share online, they’re creating products tailored not merely to our preferences, but to our soft spots, weaknesses and selfish instincts, leaving less and less space for our higher, less-selfish inclinations. Day by day, product by product, it becomes clear that an economic system engineered to give us what we want may not be the best for giving us what we actually need, whether for broad social progress or individual happiness.

How do we counter this unhealthy merger of marketplace and self, where the worst impulses of each feed off each other? One way, obviously, is through better government oversight. Yet while we unquestionably need government to help curb the large-scale impacts of our self-centered economy (through tougher financial regulations, say, or a tax on carbon) government has little aptitude for changing this more intimate and problematic relationship between market and consumer. Rather, the task of rethinking what we mean by self-interest must come from the bottom up.

Which, in fact, is precisely what we’re already seeing — even if, admittedly, in a fragmented, halting way. Re-imagining self-interest is at the heart of the rapid growth of the local-food movement, as a subset of consumers rejects the quick fix of cheaper, more convenient, less-healthy food. It is also what has driven many local communities to protest plans for big-box stores.

Or take the revival of the independent bookstore. Long assumed to be obsolete in a world of half-off discounts and one-click convenience, indies have staged a remarkable turnaround and are actually adding new stores each year. Some of that reflects the struggles of the chains and the saturation of the e-book market, not to mention indies’ own marketing efforts.

But a big factor, shop owners say, is a dawning realization among some consumers that there’s more to the book experience than massive discounts and free shipping. In many cities, readers are rediscovering bookstores as anchors of local culture, politics and neighborhood life. “Bookstores have always been very connected to communities,” Rick Simonson, longtime buyer at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, told me. “And at some level, people are remembering that connection.”

In the dog-eat-dog world of retail, the indie revival, local-food movement and other acts of consumer resistance may seem like small potatoes. But they offer a clear argument against the cynical view that consumers simply can’t resist short-term rewards or fully grasp long-term, social consequences — that we will, in effect, upgrade automatically to whatever product or “tool” lets us more efficiently look out for No. 1.

But that cynicism is itself, in essence, a part of the marketing that we can reject. Consumers can push back against those bottom-line values and restore values that support the real, long-term needs of our communities and our citizens. Sure, the consumer marketplace will keep trying to make it easier to think small and short-term to undermine our own interests. (Imagine the sky filled with delivery drones.) But we can choose a different outcome. We can resist the click.

Paul Roberts, a Wenatchee-area journalist, is author of “The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification,” which will be published in September.



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