Taste and Consumerism

Peter Drucker, whose writings form the intellectual foundation behind the modern management corporation, defined “consumerism” as follows:

What consumerism demands of business is that it actually market.  It demands that business start out with the needs, the realities, the values of the customer.  It demands that business base its reward on its contribution to the customer. … It does not ask “What do we want to sell?” but “What does the customer want to buy?”  It does not say, “This is what our product or service does.” It says “These are the satisfactions the customer looks for, values, and needs.”

Peter Drucker, Management

A consumerist business, then, is like an optimization process, and customer feedback (in the form of sales, surveys, complaints, usage statistics, and so on) is its reward function.  A consumerist business is exquisitely sensitive to customer feedback, and adapts continually in order to better satisfy customers. The consumerist philosophy is antithetical to preconceived ideas about what the company “should” make.  Lean Startups, an extreme implementation of consumerist philosophy, don’t even start with a definite idea of what the product is; the company constantly evolves into selling whatever customers want to buy.

Another way of thinking about this: in a market, there are many possible voluntary trades that could happen.  A consumerist company tries to swim towards one of these trade points and slot itself into a convenient niche.  The whole purpose of trade is to produce win-win exchanges; “consumerism” just means being flexible enough to be willing to search through all the possibilities, instead of leaving opportunities unexploited. 

Yet another, more negative slant on consumerism, is that consumerism is the absence of taste.

A manager, according to Drucker, should not ask “What do we want to sell?”  But an artist always asks “What do I want to make?”

Computer scientist Richard Hamming famously said:

And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?”

A scientist, in other words, has to care what he’s working on.  Problems that are interesting, that have the potential to be world-changing.  Any good scientist is intrinsically motivated by the problem.  If you told Hamming you’d pay him a million dollars to crochet shawls all year, he’d laugh and refuse.  If he were the kind of person who could be induced to quit working on information theory, he wouldn’t be Hamming in the first place.

Ira Glass on creativity and taste:

All of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

J.D. Salinger on writing

You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I’ve ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never…

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. 

Eric S. Raymond on software:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.

There’s very clearly a tradition, across the creative disciplines, that a creator must be intrinsically motivated by love of the work and by the ambition to make something great.  Great by what standard?  Well, this is often informed by the standards of the professional community, but it’s heavily driven by the creator’s own taste.  She has some sense of what makes a great photograph, what makes a beautiful proof, what makes an ingenious design.  

Is taste universal? Is there some sense in which Beethoven’s 9th is “really” good — is there some algorithmic regularity in it, or some resonance with the human ear, something that makes its value more than a matter of opinion?  Maybe, and maybe not.  I’m inclined to be intrigued but skeptical of simple explanations of what humans find beautiful, like Schmidthuber’s notion of low Kolmogorov complexity.  My own speculation is that hidden symmetry or simplicity is also a fundamental principle of aesthetics: a perfect circle is all right, but an intricate and non-obvious pattern, which takes more attention to notice, is more interesting to the eye, because minds take pleasure in recognition.  

Whether there are some universal principles behind aesthetics or not, in practice aesthetics are mediated through individual taste. You cannot write a book by committee, or by optimizing around a dashboard of reader feedback stats.  You can’t write a proof that way either.  

Creative original work isn’t infinitely fungible and modifiable, like other commodities. The mindset of infinitely flexible responsiveness to feedback is extremely different from the mindset of focused creation of a particular thing.  The former involves lots of task switching; the latter involves blocks of uninterrupted time.  You can’t be a maker and a manager at the same time.  Managing, responding to feedback, being a “consumerist,” requires engaging your social brain: modeling people’s responses to what you do, and adapting accordingly.  Making things involves turning that part of your brain off, and engaging directly with physical objects and senses, or abstract concepts.

Creative work is relevant to businesses.  Design, for instance, matters. So does technological innovation.  But, for a consumerist business, the constraints of creative work are unwelcome limitations.  Makers want to make a particular thing, while the company as a whole needs to find any niche where it can be profitable.

Drucker defines “knowledge workers” as skilled experts, whose loyalty is stronger to their profession than to their company.  They’ll introduce themselves with “I’m a natural language processing guy”, not “I work for IBM.”  Drucker’s “knowledge workers” seem somewhat analogous to “makers.” A cynical view of his book Management is that it’s about how to organize and motivate knowledge workers without giving them any real power.  The NLP guy’s goal is to make a tool that does an excellent job at machine translation. The manager’s goal is to promote the growth and survival of the organization.  These goals are, ideally, aligned, but when they conflict, in a Druckerian organization, the manager’s goal has to take priority.

What this means is that makers, people with taste, have a few options.

1. Work for a manager in a successful company. You’ll have serious constraints on the type of work you do, and you won’t be able to capture much of its financial value, but your work will be likely to be implemented at a large scale out in the world, and you’ll have steady income.

2. Have a small lifestyle business that caters only to the few who share your taste.  You’ll never have much money, and you won’t have large-scale impact on the world, but you’ll be able to keep your aesthetic integrity absolutely.

3. Find a patron. (Universities are the classic example, but this applies to some organizations that are nominally companies as well. A hedge fund that has a supercomputer to model protein folding is engaging in patronage.  Family money is an edge case of patronage.)  A patron is a high-status individual or group that seeks to enhance its status by funding exceptional creators and giving them freedom in their work.  You can make a moderate amount of money, you’ll get a lot of creative freedom (but you’ll be uncertain how much or for how long) and you might be able to have quite a lot of impact. The main problem here is uncertainty, because patrons are selective and their gifts often have strings attached.

4. Start a business that bets hard on your taste.  If you’re Steve Jobs, or Larry Page, your personal vision coincides with market success. You can win big on all fronts: money, impact, and creative freedom.  The risk is, of course, that the overwhelming majority of people trying this strategy fail, and you’re likely to wind up with much less freedom than 1-3.

Howard Roark, the prototypical absolutist of personal taste, picked option 2: he made the buildings he liked, for the people who shared his taste in architecture, refused to engage in any marketing whatsoever, and was nearly broke most of the time.  In fact, Ayn Rand, who has a reputation as a champion of big business, is if anything a consistent advocate of a sort of Stoic retirement. You’d be happier and more virtuous if you gave up trying to “make it big,” and instead went to a small town to ply your craft.  “Making it”, in the sense of wealth or fame or power, means making yourself beholden to lots of people and losing your individuality. 

I’m not sure I’m that much of a hipster. I don’t think the obvious thing for a creative person to do is “retirement.”  Especially not if you care about scope.  If you’ve designed a self-driving car, you don’t want to make one prototype, you want a fleet of self-driving taxis on the streets of New York.  Even more so, if you’ve discovered a cure for a disease, you want it prescribed in hospitals everywhere, not just a home remedy for your family.

What I actually plan to do is something between 1 and 3 (there’s an emerging trend for tech companies to seem to straddle the line between patrons and employers, though I’m not certain what that looks like on the inside) and explore what it would take to do 4.  


One thought on “Taste and Consumerism

  1. Steve Barnes (a sf author and life coach) recommends looking for the intersection between what you want to create and what there’s a market for. He’s managed to make it work for him.

    I suspect that not many people are conscious about searching for a way to do what they care about *and* finding a market for it.

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