Self-promo: my review of “The Support Economy” in Washington Post

Today the Washington Post has a review I wrote of “The Support Economy” — a book by Harvard prof Shoshanna Zuboff and her husband, former Volvo CEO Mames Maxmin.

In essence, they argue that modern consumerism — which they think is a good thing — has created the high level of individualism in modern American culture. The problem now, they argue, is that consumers crave and demand a level of individualized, personalized service that corporations are not prepared to deliver:

The problem, Zuboff and Maxmin say, is that mass-production and “managerial capitalism” — the engines of the 20th century’s economic growth — succeed by ignoring the individual consumer’s desire. Economists normally assume that Henry Ford’s achievement was to standardize the car, making it cheap to mass-produce. But this isn’t entirely true: Ford’s true brilliance was to standardize the customers. They agreed to buy a Model T in any color, so long as it was black.

Ford’s production-line innovations unleashed a postwar boom in consumption. But this itself led to an unforeseen conflict: As Americans began to consume more, the authors argue, the act of consumption helped define them as individuals. Indeed, Zuboff and Maxmin believe that consumption is now completely central to identity: “Through consumption of experience — travel, culture, college — people achieve and express individual self-determination. No one can escape the centrality of consumption.” Regular Americans, they suggest, now crave the personalized service once accorded only to the rich. The two forces collide: Customers want the personal touch, but companies offer one-size-fits-all …

It’s an intriguing analysis. Could “individuality” — the very thing touted in Xtreme-life ads for Gatorade and dentures alike — actually be making consumers more dissatisfied and cranky?

I go on to say a bunch of more critical things about the book — i.e. “I’m not sure whether getting brilliant service from British Airways and Dell is really such a top-drawer concern for wage slaves making $12,000 a year at Costco” — but if you want to read the whole thing, it’s here.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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