October 2, 2009

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme: How Do We Know What To Desire?

I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation the other day. "Deja Q" involved an omniscient alien that had been kicked out of the Q Continuum, a guild for the all-powerful beings of his race. The Continuum was punishing Q for being naughty, and his punishment was to be confined to a physical body for a period of time. Q chose to take the form of a human being on the Enterprise. He had gone from an all-powerful and immortal entity to a puny human. He needed to be consoled.

An obliging crew member took Q to 10-Forward, a crew lounge. At the bar the crew member told Q that he could have anything he desired. Q, being new to his human form, pimples, desires and all, asked, "How do I know what to desire?" That got me to thinking about one of my favourite videos.

I think it was on America's Funniest Home Videos (aging self now). In it a small boy unwrapped a large present with great gusto. He ripped the decorative paper off revealing plain cardboard beneath, then stepped back and yelled, "A box! A box!" He jumped up and down joyously in response to this amazing gift. Like Q, he didn't know what to desire.

Witnesses to the child's open-minded reaction would chuckle, then gently (or not so gently), show the child that he is suppose to desire the object IN the box, not the box itself. Indeed, the box will quickly be shuffled out of the living room and into the recycling, its destiny fulfilled.

The video was only a few seconds long, so it did not show the boy's reaction afterward. But I could just picture him clutching some unimaginative, garishly coloured plastic toy while his time machine, castle turret, go cart, and tollbooth disguised as a cardboard box was carried off to the garbage. He is learning what to desire.

We are trained what to desire by our culture and its agents, including parents and friends. In addition to such forces, and perhaps dwarfing such forces, is the global advertising business. It spends about half a trillion dollars a year training you in what to desire. By comparison, total global government spending on education is about 2 trillion dollars.

That $500 000 000 000 advertising budget is spent to train us to desire what is most profitable. Such desires will not include clean air and water. Or love, generosity, cooperation, independence, self-reliance, or "do it yourself".

Then we have to add in money spent on public relations. The Public Relations Society of America reports:

U.S. spending on public relations increased 12 percent to $4.27 billion in 2007, as companies sought improved methods of promoting their products and services in a perpetual news cycle. This marked the industry’s fourth straight year of double-digit growth.

I am questioning what I desire, and why I desire it. I am questioning who gains from the fulfillment of my desires. I want to find value in the box, rather than the expensive, shiny, soon-to-be-ignored bauble inside. Let's climb into that cardboard box and use our imaginations to whisk us off to the world that we desire, rather than some slick, fake world that someone is trying to sell us.


  1. Excellent post! After 15 years of writing copy for advertising, I can tell you that what we think we are buying is rarely what we are actually buying.

  2. Thank you for sharing your inside perspective. Perhaps you are familiar with Vancouver based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. Highly recommended: https://www.adbusters.org/

  3. This has been on my mind for some time now as well. My current finacial situation has created a huge obstacle in my old habits of consumerism. My families survival needs are met, and we have found content within our purchasing restraints.

    I find myself wondering what it is that I would actually want, if I had extra money to go around? At the same time, however, I wonder what would happen to all the billions of people on this planet if even just 5% decided that they no longer desired material objects.

    How many jobs would be lost? What would people do to earn an income if they weren't needed in jobs that support consumerism? How would science advance? What would drive our economy so that we could still share resources and knowledge if the motivation of earning an income was extinguished?

    I believe that there are major philosophical and political issues/implications that would arise as a result of millions of people changing thier outlook on capitalism. I am personally not a fan, but I wonder if some people would even know what to do with themselves if they didn't want to work to buy stuff, or go to the bar afterwards. And finally, how could this effect you or I in the long term?

  4. Thank you for your excellent comment. These are all vitally important questions for us to ponder as we shift into a post-consumer world.


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