A world in which advertisers know your every interest is scary. But a world where entrepreneurs build products no one ever hears about is even scarier.
A few years ago, I bought a pair of $60 Nike shoes. They were thicker than your average modern Nike shoe, and much taller, reaching just above the ankle. They were great for moving around, playing basketball (when I did that), and just sort of general every day use. And as they started to deteriorate, I began looking for the exact same pair to replace them. But no matter where I looked, they could not be found. They seemed to be a much older model, and shoes apparently don’t have specific names, so you can’t really look them up. I looked for about a year on and off, both physically and online, but could not find any pair with the same style and attributes.
About a few months ago, Instagram, having picked up on my interest in finding my long lost soulmate of a shoe, sensed it might be able to help. It offered me an advertisement of a pair of shoes remarkably similar to what I was looking for. I ignored the ad the first few times, but it kept following me. I refused to interact with it. My ego would not allow me to purchase a product from an advertisement. Eventually, I relented, and I bought the shoes. And my consumer hungers were thoroughly satiated.
Over the next few weeks, Instagram began showing me more ads of similar products. I wasn’t on the market for any more apparel, but I was intrigued at all the new brands I was discovering that you couldn’t find in stores. And it turns out, there are, in this case, countless fashion and design brands who do not have a physical presence, that make products which exceed the quality found in stores tenfold. And so Instagram learned a little about me, and I learned a little about other companies that Instagram thought I may be interested in.
Acquiring these shoes made my life better by the amount you’d expect a pair of shoes to better your life by. But, it did satisfy a need. Both on my end, and on the entrepreneur’s end. A neural connection was made. Demand was satisfied by supply, all through the power of the all-knowing internet. And I could not help but ask myself, is this such a bad thing? That entrepreneurs can make products and reach exactly the kind of people that would be interested in them sounds not so much a bad thing, but perhaps one of history’s most difficult, unsolved problems.
Because if you can complete that loop, of entrepreneur to customer, then you can ensure consistent economic activity and prosperity—for you, the entrepreneur, and society at large.
And I thought it would be wild, if instead of advertisements being these evil, demonic, invasive things (though they sometimes are), they are instead a testament to our advancement. A demonstration of the ingenuity of human problem solving. They are human society at its best.
Because if every dollar you earned was hid under your mattress instead of spent, economies would falter. Society could not prosper. And while many—perhaps even the majority—are still neglected by the economic gain that consumerism has conferred, there is no doubt a rise of possibility available that was not before. My first reaction to consumerism is always one of disgust and repulsion. “Companies create demand for products no one really needs through manipulation and association”—how appalling! It must be avoided at all costs! So fine. Then earn your money, and keep it in your bank account. Don’t give a dime to these greedy entrepreneurs.
Who has benefited then? Not you. Not them.
Consumerism seems to be an engine of growth, needless as it may be. It creates reliable, consistent economic activity—the foundation of stable societies. Which is why wherever you find developed countries and cities, you find consumerism.
Perhaps...perhaps we are beginning to make progress on one of history's greatest unsolved problems?
No doubt, there are proper ways to go about this, and improper ways. But the two will be perpetually inseparable. All this to say—and mostly to myself: Don’t sweep the entirety of "economic algorithms" under the rug. There is good happening just as well.