Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Chapter 38 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

Conformity or Diversity? -Which Way Are We Going?


THE SUPER-INDUSTRIAL revolution will consign to the archives of ignorance most of what we now believe about democracy and the future of human choice. Today in the techno-societies there is an almost ironclad consensus about the future of freedom. Maximum individual choice is regarded as the democratic ideal. Yet most writers predict that we shall move further and further from this ideal. They conjure up a dark vision of the future, in which people appear as mindless consumer-creatures, surrounded by standardised goods, educated in standardised schools, fed a diet of standardised mass culture, and forced to adopt standardised styles of life.

Such predictions have spawned a generation of future-haters and technophobes, as one might expect. One of the most extreme of these is a French religious mystic, Jacques Ellul, whose books are enjoying a campus vogue. According to Ellul, man was far freer in the past when 'Choice was a real possibility for him.' By contrast, today, 'The human being is no longer in any sense the agent of choice.' And, as for tomorrow: 'In the future, man will apparently be confined to the role of a recording device.' Robbed of choice, he will be acted upon, not active. He will live, Ellul warns, in a totalitarian state run by a velvet-gloved Gestapo.

This same theme-the loss of choice runs through much of the work of Arnold Toynbee. It is repeated by everyone from hippie gurus to Supreme Court justices, tabloid editorialists and existentialist philosophers. Put in its simplest form, this Theory of Vanishing Choice rests on a crude syllogism: science and technology have fostered standardisation. Science and technology will advance, making the future even more standardised than the present. Ergo: man will progressively lose his freedom of choice.

If instead of blindly accepting this syllogism, we stop to analyse it, however, we make an extraordinary discovery. For not only is the logic itself faulty, the entire idea is premised on sheer factual ignorance about the nature, the meaning and the direction of the super-industrial revolution. Ironically, the people of the future may suffer not from an absence of choice, but from a paralysing surfeit of it. They may turn out to be victims of that peculiarly super-industrial dilemma: overchoice.


No person travelling across Europe or the United States can fail to be impressed by the architectural similarity of one gas station or airport to another. Anyone thirsting for a soft drink will find one bottle of Coca-Cola to be almost identical with the next. Clearly a consequence of mass-production techniques, the uniformity of certain aspects of our physical environment has long outraged intellectuals. Some decry the Hiltonisation of our hotels; others charge that we are homogenising the entire human race.

Certainly, it would be difficult to deny that industrialism has had a levelling effect. Our ability to produce millions of nearly identical units is the crowning achievement of the industrial age. Thus, when intellectuals bewail the sameness of our material goods, they accurately reflect the state of affairs under industrialism.

In the same breath, however, they reveal shocking ignorance about the character of super-industrialism. Focused on what society was, they are blind to what it is fast becoming. For the society of the future will offer not a restricted, standardised flow of goods, but the greatest variety of unstandardised goods and services any society has even seen. We are moving not towards a further extension of material standardisation, but towards its dialectical negation.

The end of standardisation is already in sight. The pace varies from industry to industry, and from country to country. In Europe, the peak of standardisation has not yet been crested. (It may take another twenty or thirty years to run its course.) But in the United States, there is compelling evidence that a historic corner has been turned.

Some years ago, for example, an American marketing expert named Kenneth Schwartz made a surprising discovery. 'It is nothing less than a revolutionary transformation that has come over the mass consumer market during the past five years,' he wrote. 'From a single homogenous unit, the mass market has exploded into a series of segmented, fragmented markets, each with its own needs, tastes and way of life.' This fact has begun to alter American industry beyond recognition. The result is an astonishing change in the actual outpouring of goods offered to the consumer.

Philip Morris, for example, sold a single major brand of cigarettes for twenty-one years. Since 1954 by contrast, it has introduced six new brands and so many options with respect to size, filter and menthol that the smoker now has a choice among sixteen different variations. This fact would be trivial, were it not duplicated in virtually every major product field. Gasoline? Until a few years ago, the American motorist took his pick of either 'regular' or 'premium'. Today he drives up to a Sunoco pump and is asked to choose among eight different blends and mixes. Groceries? Between 1950 and 1963 the number of different soaps and detergents on the American grocery shelf increased from sixty-five to 200; frozen foods; from 121 to 350; baking mixes and flour from eighty-four to 200. Even the variety of pet foods increased from fifty-eight to eighty-one. One major company, Corn Products, produces a pancake syrup called Karo. Instead of offering the same product nationally, however, it sells two different viscosities, having found that Pennsylvanians, for some regional reason, prefer their syrup thicker than other Americans. In the field of office decor and furniture, the same process is at work. 'There are ten times the new styles and colours there were a decade ago,' says John A. Saunders, president of General Fireproofing Company, a major manufacturer in the field. 'Every architect wants his own shade of green.' Companies, in other words, are discovering wide variations in consumer wants and are adapting their production lines to accommodate them. Two economic factors encourage this trend: first, consumers have more money to lavish on their specialised wants; second, and even more important, as technology becomes more sophisticated, the cost of introducing variations declines.

This is the point that our social critics - most of whom are technologically naive - fail to understand: it is only primitive technology that imposes standardisation. Automation, in contrast, frees the path to endless, blinding, mind-numbing diversity. 'The rigid uniformity and long runs of identical products which characterise our traditional mass-production plants are becoming less important' reports industrial engineer Boris Yavitz. 'Numerically controlled machines can readily shift from one product model or size to another by a simple change of programmes ... Short product runs become economically feasible.' According to Professor Van Court Hare Jr, of the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, 'Automated equipment . . . permits the production of a wide variety of products in short runs at almost "mass-production" costs.' Many engineers and business experts foresee the day when diversity will cost no more than uniformity.

The finding that pre-automation technology yields standardisation, while advanced technology permits diversity is borne out by even a casual look at that controversial American innovation, the supermarket. Like petrol stations and airports, supermarkets tend to look alike whether they are in Milan or Milwaukee. By wiping out thousands of little 'mom and pop' shops they have without doubt contributed to uniformity in the architectural environment. Yet the array of goods they offer the consumer is incomparably more diverse than any corner shop could afford to stock. Thus at the very moment that they encourage architectural sameness, they foster gastronomic diversity.

The reason for this contrast is simple: food and food packaging technology is far more advanced than construction techniques. Indeed, construction has scarcely reached the level of mass production; it remains, in large measure, a pre-industrial craft. Strangled by local building codes and conservative trade unions, the industry's rate of technological advance is far below that of other industries. The more advanced the technology, the cheaper it is to introduce variation in output. We can safely predict, therefore, that when the construction industry catches up with manufacturing in technological sophistication, gas stations, airports, and hotels, as well as supermarkets, will stop looking as if they had been poured from the same mould. Uniformity will give way to diversity.

{Where the process has begun, the results are striking. In Washington, DC, for example, there is a now famous computer-designed apartment house, Watergate East - in which no two floors are alike. Of 240 apartments, 167 have different floor plans. And there are no continuous straight lines in the building anywhere.}

While certain parts of Europe and Japan are still building their first all-purpose supermarkets, the United States has already leaped to the next stage, the creation of specialised super-stores that widen still further (indeed, almost beyond belief) the variety of goods available to the consumer. In Washington, DC, one such store specialises in foreign foods, offering such delicacies as hippopotamus steak, alligator meat, wild snow hare, and thirty-five different kinds of honey.

The idea that primitive industrial techniques foster uniformity, while advanced automated techniques favour diversity, is dramatised by recent changes in the automobile industry. The widespread introduction of European and Japanese cars into the American market in the late 1950s opened many new options for the buyer, increasing his choice from half a dozen to some fifty makes. Today even this wide range of choice seems narrow and constricted.

Faced with foreign competition, Detroit took a new look at the so-called 'mass consumer'. It found not a single uniform mass market, but an aggregation of transient mini-markets. It also found, as one writer put it, that 'customers wanted custom-like cars that would give them an illusion of having one-of-a-kind.' To provide that illusion would have been impossible with the old technology; and new computerised assembly systems, however, make possible not merely the illusion, but even-before long-the reality.

Thus the beautiful and spectacularly successful Mustang is promoted by Ford as 'the one you design yourself', because, as critic Reyner Banham explains, there 'isn't a dung-regular Mustang any more, just a stockpile of options to meld in combinations of 3 (bodies) X 4 (engines) x 3 (transmissions) X 4 (basic sets of high-performance engine modifications) - 1 (rock-bottom six-cylinder car to which these modifications don't apply) + 2 (Shelby grand-touring and racing set-ups applying to only one body shell and not all engine/ transmission combinations).' This does not even take into account the possible variations in colour, upholstery and optional equipment.

Both car buyers and auto salesmen are increasingly disconcerted by the sheer multiplicity of options. The buyers' problem of choice has become far more complicated, the addition of each option creating the need for more information, more decisions and sub-decisions. Thus, anyone who has attempted to buy a car lately, as I have, soon finds that the task of learning about the various brands, lines, models and options (even within a fixed price range) requires days of shopping and reading. In short, the auto industry may soon reach the point at which its technology can economically produce more diversity than the consumer needs or wants.

Yet we are only beginning the march towards destandardisation of our material culture. Marshall McLuhan has noted that 'Even today, most United States automobiles are, in a sense, custom-produced. Figuring all possible combinations of styles, options and colours available on a certain new family sports car, for example, a computer expert came up with 25,000,000 different versions of it for a buyer ... When automated electronic production reaches full potential, it will be just about as cheap to turn out a million differing objects as a million exact duplicates. The only limits on production and consumption will be the human imagination.' Many of McLuhan's other assertions are highly debatable. This one is not. He is absolutely correct about the direction in which technology is moving. The material goods of the future will be many things; but they will not be standardised. We are, in fact, racing towards 'overchoice'-the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualisation are cancelled by the complexity of the buyer's decision-making process.

This chapter originally appeared as the first part of Chapter 12 of "Future Shock"

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