Hacking Happiness: Why Your Personal Data Counts and How Tracking It Can Change the World (2015)
Be a Provider
FROM CONSUMER TO CREATOR
Along with economists, politicians, business reporters, and advocacy groups, we habitually describe our fellow humans as consumers. Of course, that term makes sense when applied to people wolfing down food and drink, but lately it has been extended to virtually every area of our lives . . . Until recently, just about everyone accepted this insidious new moniker, perhaps not even noticing when the term consumer began to push aside references to ourselves as citizens or simply men and women.1
YOU’RE A CONSUMER. You, the reader. I’ve worked hard to establish a relationship with you, quoting smart people and pouring my heart out in this book. I’ve tried to point out that your actions, your words, and your essence are reflected in a digital context that will define you like never before in the future.
But fuck it. You’re a consumer, I’m a consumer, we’re all just consumers. That word is a lot easier to deal with than all this technology bullshit. I’m not even a real futurist. I talk about stuff that already exists and project a few years in the future. So I’m a pres-entist, or a speculativist.
So let’s stick with words and ideas we’ve become used to. I’m a consumer and so are you. Right? I don’t need to argue this point. We’re consumers.
For instance, we both know you’re only invested in this book until something new comes along you want to consume. That probably happens every five seconds or so. And I’m only interested in you long enough to buy my book. Right? If I have good quotes on the jacket liner, a sexy title, and some pithy language, maybe I get lucky and you choose to consume my bit of philosophy versus buying four lattes. That’s the logic of consuming, right? Comparison and choice with an onus to purchase. A mandate.
Yes, let’s be clear: The word consumer comes with a mandate. You buy something. It’s not a choice. Don’t say the word ever again and think it’s innocuous. Understand its ramifications, its deeper meanings. And realize it’s being used to define you. The fact that you’re a man, woman, old, young, live in Seattle versus Oslo, worship in a church or temple—those facts are secondary. First—first—you’re defined as a consumer.
Put the word in your mouth and say it slowly. It starts with a hard C sound, which gives it verbal power from the get-go. Then the combined N and M sounds add a lascivious undertone, an almost sexual allure that says, “You’re worth this.” And although it’s not pronounced, the word me makes up the end of the word.
Say the word out loud now. Say it to your son or daughter. Look at your mom, point your finger, and say, “You’re a consumer.” At Starbucks with a friend, point at their coffee and say, “What did you choose to consume? Did you want to consume some more with me? Maybe next week we can come back here and do some consuming together.”
Go ahead and say I’m overreacting. “It’s just a term applied to people when speaking in the context of what we buy,” you say. You think? Or do you think the term has shaped why we buy in the first place?
Of course it has. In its modern context, “consumer” is a core economic term. Someone produces something, and you consume it. This relationship implies that we’re reliant on someone else to define us. Apparently we can’t execute a core part of who we are until we’re given the chance to consume something somebody else has produced.
Just reflect on the word for a minute. That’s all I’m asking. Put the word consumer in your brain, take a deep breath, and let it sit there for a while. Now pretend you’re looking in a mirror. How does the word consumer fit in that scenario? Is that the word that comes to mind when you look in your own eyes and ask, “Who am I?”
Words have power. They represent measures that have been defined by others. Using a word leads to implied acceptance of the word, which leads to forgetting how the word originated in the first place.
One of my favorite speeches in a film was delivered by Dustin Hoffman portraying comedian Lenny Bruce. It’s from the movie Lenny, and you can watch it on YouTube.2 The scene takes place in a smoky comedy club when John F. Kennedy was president. In the scene, Hoffman (as Bruce) accosts a number of patrons in the bar, using every racial slang term imaginable as he gets right up in people’s faces. He asks the club to turn up the house lights so everyone can see one another as he continues using multiple racist terms, building the tension in the club to a boil. Eventually, when it looks as if he may actually get hit in the face, he says, “I’m trying to make a point that it’s the suppression of a word that gives it its power, its violence, its viciousness.” He goes on to say that if President Kennedy would go on television and use the racial slurs toward his cabinet members, the words would eventually lose their power and not mean anything anymore, and “you’d never be able to make a black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger in school.”
First off, let me be clear: The racial slurs in this monologue are ignorant, hateful, and have much wider contexts than how they’re used in one simple scene from a movie. My intention in this exercise is not to bandy verbiage about solely for the sake of shock value to prove a point. What I’m trying to say is words have intent. Shakespeare is widely known for inventing words where he felt there wasn’t one in existence to express what he intended. Or here’s how James 3:3 puts it: “A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!”
The English word consumption is from the fourteenth century and refers to tuberculosis. Consumption used to be a physical malady defined by a person’s body literally wasting away. In the modern economic sense, the definition refers to people using up goods and services in order to purchase more of those goods and services. Sustainability doesn’t enter into the picture. Finite resources aren’t part of the equation. In the same vein that the corporate world can get caught up in quarterly profits, people get caught up in a consumptive lifestyle because that’s what they’ve been taught is the right thing to do. The only thing to do.
But the word and what it stands for are causing a great deal of anxiety, as noted from a press release from the Association for Psychological Science about a Northwestern University study.
Money doesn’t buy happiness. Neither does materialism: Research shows that people who place a high value on wealth, status, and stuff are more depressed and anxious and less sociable than those who do not. Now new research shows that materialism is not just a personal problem. It’s also environmental . . . “It’s become commonplace to use consumer as a generic term for people,” [says Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen] in the news or discussions of taxes, politics, or health care. If we use terms such as Americans or citizens instead, he says, “that subtle difference activates different psychological concerns.”3
This study was conducted at Northwestern University by psychologists Galen V. Bodenhausen, Monika A. Bauer, James E. B. Wilkie, and Jung K. Kim, and featured a number of experiments, the last of which had participants deal with a hypothetical water shortage where a well was shared by four people. Identified either as “consumers” or “individuals,” participants were studied to see how their adopted identities would affect their behavior toward others.
Might the collective identity as consumers—as opposed to the individual role—supersede the selfishness ordinarily stimulated by the consumer identity? No: The “consumers” rated themselves as less trusting of others to conserve water, less personally responsible, and less in partnership with the others in dealing with the crisis. The consumer status, the authors concluded, “did not unite; it divided.”4
Lenny Bruce pointed out that words become weapons when they’re made sacred by lack of use. But words also get weaponized from overuse—allowed in a certain context, we ignore the insidious effects the words have on our psyches.
I don’t want you to think of the word consumer the same way ever again. I don’t want to give you permission to use it to define yourself or anyone else when there are so many words to better describe your central identity.
From Consumer to Creator
In my Mashable article “The Impending Social Consequences of Augmented Reality,” my friend Chris Rezendes nailed a term I’d like to propose for people in the Connected World of the future focused on holistic value versus just consumption. He said, “We’re going to call people creators.”5
It’s in our nature to create. And you don’t have to be creative to create. When you choose words to say in a discussion, you’re creating a conversation. When you choose to talk to a cute woman at a bar, you’re creating an opportunity. The act of creating means you’re putting something into place that didn’t exist before, something only you can bring into being.
Shifting from the word consumer to creator also has a positive effect on the people with whom you relate. As a consumer, our relationships are focused on dealing with producers. From a transactional standpoint, this makes sense. I don’t produce my own vegetables, so I need to consume them from someone else. But I’d rather simply call that person a farmer, to denote the title and appreciation warranted by their profession.
If you’re a creator versus a consumer, I think the people you deal with should be called savorers. I love the word savor, since by definition you can’t do it quickly. In positive psychology, according to Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff, the act of savoring means you appreciate the positive aspects of life.6 You can’t rush savoring. Instead of thinking of someone just as a consumer who ingests their way through existence, ask them what it is they create. Our work used to be about craftsmanship before the Industrial Revolution. Technology has improved how we get things done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t go back to former language that acknowledges people’s investment in their work.
The Creator in the Connected World
Here’s a scenario showing how a creator’s life could look in the near future:
You’re at a Starbucks waiting in line and get an IM (instant message) in your HUD (heads-up display—like Google Glass, but it covers both your eyes). A camera icon with a question mark appears in the upper-right-hand portion of your vision, meaning someone nearby wants to take a picture and you’re in the shot. You IM back an automated message:
Hi. Looks like you want to take a picture that would feature my image. Since we’re in a public space, I can’t keep you from snapping. But if you use facial recognition to tag me, note that I own my own data in any format and will appear as an avatar in your picture unless you receive my written consent to use my image.
You immediately get another IM with a money icon and a URL link to a blog. You blink to open the URL and see a series of riveting black-and-white photographs featuring people waiting in lines. The title of the blog is This Is Your Queue, and you think it’s really cool. So you blink on the money icon and a message appears from the person requesting the picture that says:
I use PaySwarm to provide micropayments for anyone I feature in my images. I don’t tag people’s faces, and I have a computer program that constantly scans the Web to make sure other people aren’t using my pictures without permission. So if you let me use your image, your visual data will be safe, and after a while maybe you’ll make enough money to buy a coffee like the one you’re waiting in line for right now.
You blink twice toward the IM to accept these conditions, looking to the right using eye-tracking technology to save the URL for the blog so you can check it out in the future. You turn and smile at the photographer who has identified himself sitting nearby, ap-preciating the fact that your picture has become a work of art.
From Creator to Provider
The scenario I’ve described here isn’t new in terms of picture-taking. There are millions of pictures on Facebook right now featuring people who didn’t know they were being photographed. Many of them have been identified by facial recognition, and somebody is making money in some way off their images without their knowledge. These are consumers, dehumanized faces available for sale.
Change these people to creators, however, and their likenesses become contributions to the virtual landscape. They can’t be sold without their permission. And permission is granted based on mu-tual appreciation.
In the scenario described above, the “consumer” being photographed has also gone one step beyond being a creator. They’ve become a provider. Their likeness has provided an opportunity for someone else to create their work. Economically speaking, the photographer could be considered a producer, and the person in line a consumer. But this exchange involved mutual respect and appreciation. While the photographer has promised to pay in the future, the person waiting in line has no guarantee this will happen. The exchange at its core wasn’t transactional in nature as much as relational and based on trust.
The person in line also savored, however briefly, the photographer’s blog. This act of reflecting on someone else’s work and acknowledging their unique contribution to the world is profound. Whatever the technology interface, whatever the setting, this act of recognition says, “I recognize your efforts. And I see you.”
Remember how I started this chapter calling you a consumer? Remember how it distanced us, putting us at arm’s length? I did that to prove to you that words matter. You have more value to give to the world than as a vehicle for consumption. You’re a creator, and a savorer. You can richly contribute to other people’s lives while also deeply appreciating other people’s worth. You can participate in shared value on a personal level and create intrinsic happiness in our Connected World.
I see you.