Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Design For Living

"O brave new world that has such people in it."

Having just recently re-read the famous Aldous Huxley novel which takes its title from this quote from The Tempest, these words went through my head more than once yesterday afternoon while my wife and I were making our way through our local IKEA….

No, wait, to be honest, I believe I was actually thinking something more along the lines of ‘what a fine fucking freakshow this place is’, but memory, as is well known, plays tricks on us. Especially with advancing age. But Shakespeare’s version is far more poetic than mine, whatever nicely alliterative qualities it may possess.

Fine literature aside, I have been reminded that the world of consumer goods can be a very strange, shadowy realm indeed.

Now, this is a touchy subject for many people, I know. It’s very easy to get into trouble when indulging in a little criticism of the world of consumption. Two reactions seem pre-programmed: accusations either of elitism (‘What makes you think that your taste is better, you arrogant snob?’) and/or hypocrisy (‘Isn’t that a ‘Billy’ bookshelf I see in your office, Mr. Smartass Cultural Critic?’).

So, I think it’s necessary to provide a disclaimer: I’m guilty on both counts. OK?

Furthermore, I don’t think that there is – in essence – anything wrong with IKEA. Style-wise, they’re not bad, expertly plundering a century’s worth of exquisite Scandinavian design history, with its distinctive combination of minimalism and wit. The quality of most of their stuff, while nothing to shout about, is adequate for the price. The selection is enormous. The smoked salmon is very tasty.

No, the problem is not IKEA itself. What is unsettling is the effect that a visit to IKEA seems to have on the human mind.

There is a strange transformative process which occurs when you bring together several hundred people – among them a healthy portion of hyperactive, screaming children – who seem to see IKEA not simply as one of many other choices in an already overstocked consumer marketplace, but rather as an event. For some, going to IKEA seems to be the best experience they’ve had all week. There are people who love IKEA. Who seem to think that IKEA is part of a lifestyle. Perhaps even a mass movement of some sort.

Surrounded by such people, what could be a reasonably efficient, and perhaps even enjoyable, shopping excursion (and, as much as I might abhor much of modern life, I know that shopping can be fun) ends up producing a psychological state in which I begin to have a sympathetic understanding for people who run amok with automatic weapons.

Now, I’m a bit stuck here, since the IKEA-driven psychosis I’m describing is a very personal thing. I can’t really point to exactly what it is that gets me so worked up. Anything I could write would be inadequate, I think, as any of these individual elements on their own seems harmless. You’ll just think I’m a crazy, intolerant misanthrope.

No, in order to understand, you have to be there, you have to look this sort of madness straight in the eyes.

Our own journey to the heart of darkness begins in the cafeteria. We think: a coffee might help, it might even have a steadying influence before we face the ordeal ahead. But the cafeteria is packed, and there’s a long line. At 3pm on a Monday afternoon, the time we chose specifically to avoid the usual crush. We fight our way through the crowd, grab our coffee cups and some cake, and find a free table. With a breathtaking panoramic view of the parking lot, we consider the masses of people around us.

An astounding number of them, we discover, are not only frightfully overweight but are also stuffing themselves with cheap meatballs with an intense mental concentration and determination which would put a chess grand master to shame. One, sitting next to us and apparently a diabetic, pauses briefly to inject himself in his stomach before turning back to the plateful of little brown orbs before him.

I get us a refill, to postpone the inevitable. We run through the list again of things we need, trying to keep focused. Children, their sugar intake enhanced through free refills, careen around the vast but crowded space like random particles in some kind of subatomic experiment. One of them collides with a larger particle and a glass is dropped. Screams ensue. Meanwhile, Mr. Meatball’s wife has brought over another load of tasty, meaty spheres.

I’m astounded.

A thought, unbidden, passes through my mind: If I curled myself into a ball, I think my whole body would fit into his stomach. This cannot be good.

Still a bit freaked out by the cafeteria, we turn to the task at hand.

We descend into a vast space, hermetically sealed from the outside world, devoid of natural lighting.

I repeat the list-of-needed-items like a mantra, seeking to maintain inner calm. ‘Be like water’, I remind myself, re-applying a lesson I learned in a different context last week.

This proves difficult, though. We’re penned in with hundreds of other people with big bulging yellow bags. We’re compelled to follow a particular winding path through a landscape of tastefully designed and arranged fake living spaces, most of which are so perfectly tidy that I feel a vague shame that the real world we inhabit is not this pure. We can’t go directly to where we need to go without passing through everything else as well. We drift along through the idealised, indeed utopian, worlds presented to us.

The world outside might be in a state of violent, terminal decline, but here, there is no sign of distress. Nothing out of place. All the bookshelves have, at most, about five books on them. And they’re in Swedish.

There is a lot of choice. There are, in fact, far too many choices.

But, in a seeming contradiction, all these choices begin to blend into one: all these things are so different, but simultaneously all the same. The collision of unity and diversity begins to eat away at my sense of well-being. I reach out for what comfort I can, but I find myself referring to furniture not by its description but rather by a proper name. A name, like a person: usually something which is cute and functional and alien, a combination which I find vaguely threatening.

It’s not a chair, it’s Ingolf, Harola or, what seems most strange for some reason, Roger.

We want to move quickly to where the kitchen tables are, this is, after all why we came (and then the curtains and then the office chairs, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Breathe deeply. Be like water, dammit!) But it’s a long way till then. We have to go through bedrooms and living rooms first, and getting from here to there is not easy. There is an overweight family of five blocking the way, seemingly oblivious to their in-the-wayness, loudly debating whether to take Forsby or Björkudden home with them. They seem to reach a decision, a fragile truce is reached, which then falls apart as someone – the fool! – mentions Mella, and they’re off again.

We manage to barely squeeze past.

And so it goes, for about an hour. At about the 40 minute point, I think I begin to hallucinate. Wherever I look, I see pregnant women. I shake my head, rub my eyes. Nope. Not a hallucination: all the women I can see around me are enormously pregnant. This is sort of like that scene at the end of the Stepford Wives, only a lot more rotund.

Germany is supposed to begin dying out in the next decade or so. But not in IKEA land. How can this be? What do they put in those meatballs?

I notice, too, that people have begun to speak differently. Rather than talking about a shelving unit, they refer to ‘storage solutions’. I begin to succumb to the group psychosis, imagining how these bits of plastic and pressed wood might actually make our lives better. I catch myself. My wife’s reassuring hand on my arm brings me back to sanity.

Keep breathing. Be like water.

We emerge, brittle nerves still intact. Passing the cash registers is like salvation. We’re in the parking lot, then off to the Autobahn… Ah, freedom.

Now, I know, I know, I know, nobody forces anyone to go through this. This is voluntary; this is about choice.

And that’s true.

But that’s far too easy.

And I’m a perfect example. For some reason I always think – irrationally – that next time things will be different. As the shock and awe of the last IKEA trip wears off and as the catalogues arrive in the mail box, I begin to think up new household ‘problems’ to which IKEA provides ‘solutions’. Why is this?

As an Ikea shopper once put it in comments to the BBC, ‘Visiting Ikea is like going to a dark place, and their reasonably-priced lamps are no consolation.’

What is this dark place? I’m not sure exactly, but I think I’ve seen it. Perhaps you have too.

So, I’m not sure what happens to people’s brains when they get into an IKEA which turns them into a rabid consumer mob, a band of hyperactive locusts obsessed with futons and storage solutions. It’s probably also true that, in the real world, many of the people who so perturbed me are actually very nice, fine, outstanding people rather than the grabby, pushy beasts they become when inside an IKEA. I mean, riots have occurred, people have been injured in mob scenes at at least one IKEA store opening.

This suggests that what we’re dealing with here is something more than simply cheap sofas.

IKEA is, of course, only one example which points to the disturbing psychology of consuming. Our relationships with products are complex. This is why, for instance, automobiles are not just about transportation but rather symbolise all kinds of things like sex, rage and feelings of dominance. Or, alternatively, fears of inadequacy, which seems to be the basis of the new ad campaigns for Hummers.

I’m not for a moment putting myself outside of all of this. I know that I have irrational attachments to all kinds of consumer goods which would require expensive counselling to untie. (But let’s just say that these are not the sorts of problems which would drive me to buy a Hummer, OK?) It’s not because I think I’m immune from that irrationality, but rather precisely because I’m aware of my own susceptibility to it which I find so disturbing.

What I don’t think this is all about is simply Big Bad Corporations trying to manipulate us. That is a popular, but, I think, a far too comforting answer. This is the sinister thing which I experienced during our IKEA visit: Part of me wants to participate in this world. Some kinds of buttons are getting pushed there which I really wonder about. And this seems to be a mass phenomenon.

What is it that seems to have emerged in our psyches across all those Pleistocene millennia of evolution, deep in our minds, which finds itself craving modular shelving units?

We think that choice is good for us, and to a certain extent it is. Barry Schwartz, looking more closely at this issue in his book The Paradox of Choice, has found that there can, however, be too much of a good thing. There is a good discussion (as well as some criticism) of this notion at the New Yorker:

Schwartz looks at the particular patterns of our irrationality, relying on the sort of research pioneered by two Israeli-American psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. It turns out, for instance, that people will often consciously choose against their own happiness. Tversky and a colleague once asked subjects whether they’d prefer to be making thirty-five thousand dollars a year while those around them were making thirty-eight thousand or thirty-three thousand while those around them were making thirty thousand. They answered, in effect, that it depends on what the meaning of the word “prefer” is. Sixty-two per cent said they’d be happier in the latter case, but eighty-four per cent said they’d choose the former.

Research in the wake of Kahneman and Tversky has unearthed a number of conundrums around choice. For one thing, choice can be “de-motivating.” In a study conducted several years ago, shoppers who were offered free samples of six different jams were more likely to buy one than shoppers who were offered free samples of twenty-four. This result seems irrational—surely you’re more apt to find something you like from a range four times as large—but it can be replicated in a variety of contexts. Students who are offered six topics they can write about for extra credit, for instance, are more likely to write a paper than students who are offered thirty.

Why should this be? Schwartz suggests that it has to do with the irrational way people measure “opportunity costs.” Instead of calculating opportunity cost as the value of the single most attractive foregone alternative, we seem to assemble an idealistic composite of all the options foregone. A wider range of slightly inferior options, then, can make it harder to settle on one you’re happy with.

And this is something to consider the next time you’re having to decide between Tonal, Diabas, Batolit, Famn, Kroby, Grimsö, Grönö and Libby, when all you really wanted was a lamp.

Otherwise known as a ‘lighting solution’.

See you there.

No comments: