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Society09 August 2016

James Wallman: “Mass Production And Mass Consumption Cause Mass Depression”

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Have you ever thought about the essence of possession, buying and following new stuff? I have, pretty often. Some time ago, I noticed that if the item is not necessary to me, I do not see the practicality in everyday life, the most I would have got rid of it, clearing my surroundings and feeling at the same time relieved of having my own space not cluttered. The same is with the process of buying. Most of what I buy, I try to pick through the lens of practicality (I’m not talking here about the food, though it also has a “practical” aspect). The truth associated with marketing is that as a society we buy on power. Much too much of everything. We buy items we do not need, regardless of the consequences. Contrary to appearances, this state of overproduction and overconsumption of goods has a negative impact not only on the environment. Just as the excess of calories causes obesity, so the excess of the things which we surround ourselves, can be dangerous to our health.The scale of the problem is huge.

So when I came across the review of the book “Stuffocation” by James Wallman without hesitation I decided to buy it and read. I also quickly realized that I really want to talk to James. This proved to be easy to plan (even though I had to wait a while for a confirmation email), but quite difficult to implement. James agreed to an interview, but unfortunately we had to postpone it three times. However, we managed to synchronize our calendars and the result of our conversation is the interview below.

James Wallman is a British writer, journalist and futurist, the founder of think tank The Future Is Here. He publishes in New York Times, Sunday Times, Time, The Economist and Wired. He is an advisor for brands such as Absolut, BMW, Google and Zurich Insurance. The book “Stuffocation”, the one we talked about, is his first publication. In my opinion, extremely successful and extremely important.


Adam Przeździęk: I really love your book, your approach and your ideas. I really think it’s important to think about experiences rather than material stuff. That’s why “Stuffocation” is one of my favorite books and I’d like to ask you few questions because I’d like to show people that they should buy your book read it and they should know your ideas and start thinking about experiences not about stuff and buying new stuff and following for something new. How would you describe stuffocation problem and how big is it?

James Wallman: Stuffocation starts when you probably have too much stuff and that is different in different parts of the world. This is simply the idea of what you’ve got. If you’ve got one pair of shoes having a second pair of shoes will it make a difference to your life? One pair of shoes to wear and one pair of shoes to go out with friends in the evening, then have another pair of shoes to play football in. So once we have ten pair of shoes the eleventh pair won’t make you any happier. Large parts of the world is a successful consumer society. Oh , we just have too much stuff, we just have covered, covered overflowing with things. We got to that point, quite interesting I think, which is right what seems to wear tonight. We’ve been taught as consumers to buy, buy, buy and we’ve been told that the best thing to have happiness is to have more stuff. We are bombarded with messages with advertises telling us that if you buy this people will find you attractive, if you drive this car people will want to talk to you, want to sleep with you, want to get married to you. If you have these things you will have a certain state in your life. If we didn’t have anything it’s like as if you have never driven a BMW, having a BMW is truly fantastic. And the truth is that those things we get used to them is something like a hedonic adaptation. The hedonic adaptation is that we get used to things and we used to them very quickly so you think that getting a new pair of Nike trainers is going to change your life, you think that getting a new car is going to change your life but the thing is that when you get that thing you get used to it very quickly. A mobile phone is a very good example. You think that getting a new Samsung or a new iPhone is going to make you really happy but once you’ve got that thing we adjust to it, we get used to that thing like a norm.

And it’s different with experience as it takes longer to get used to an experience. And one experience is built on another experience. You spend your money going to Zakopane skiing or going to Gdańsk or Sopot (Polish seaside). Whenever you go there you spend your money on doing something rather than on having something. You will get much more value enjoying your stay there because of social media for one example, but you also get more happiness on that as well.

And the other aspect of stuffocation is a personal aspect that we got that stuff personally. It’s always the realization that materialism leads us to the thing which is abundance. But I think we are reaching to a point now where we are realizing that materialism has a whole bunch of problems. The key problem is the environment. The anxiety, the stress and depression of “successful consumer society”. But if you shift your spending from stuff to experience you’ll focus your energy, your time, your money, you’ll start to experience and you will be happier and that will create better happier society.

AP: I totally agree. So are we looking for satisfaction in wrong things or in the wrong way?

JW: Oh yes. If you’re materialistic, you are. I’ve got to be really clear about this. I think that materialism as a value system and a practice of consumerism was the stand out idea in the 20th century. Because if you think of what life was like in 1916 and your country, and my country, and Europe and America, all around the world it wasn’t great. Most people didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have running water in our homes, we didn’t have wonderful telephones. We couldn’t even have this conversation. You are in Warszawa, or where are you in Poland?

AP: I’m in the south of Poland, near Katowice.

JW: Ok, I understand. You are in Katowice and I’m in West London and we are having this conversation and it’s almost perfect. I just want to say – lucky us that we are living in this year. Materialism is a great idea. And if you have nothing, having something is fantastic! You can think about this in the terms of food. Food is a great example. If you have no food, if you have an opportunity to have more food it’s really good for you. You get to a point that too much food doesn’t make you any more healthy, it leads to obesity. Stuffocation is a material equivalent of the obesity epidemy. I don’t know how is the obesity in Poland?

AP: I think it is at a high level but I see that sport is getting even more popular here. I see many people running or doing crossfit. We’ve got many runners and even triathletes here but the obesity level is still high I guess.

JW: The problem around the world is that people consume more calories than they need. And that’s the same with stuff. Our system produces too much stuff. It produces more stuff than we really need. That’s why we’ve got so many problems with environment. And we ended up getting hooked on something which is not very good for us.

Remind your question, are we looking for satisfaction in wrong things or in a wrong way? Yes, in the wrong way. Because the circumstances are changed. Now the problem is abundance which is right from where starts my stuffocation and Adam, people like you and people in Australia, in Italy, in Brazil get this problem. Our problem is now abundance. Lucky us! Honestly, it’s the smallest problem we could have. And now the solution is different and even the best way of looking for happiness has fundamentally changed.

AP: One of the conclusions from your book is that mass production and mass consumption cause mass depression and you’ve mentioned this. Do you see any trend or at least a micro trend that could make us more linked to one thing or more sentimental about particular thing that we should use things for a long time without an inside need to changed them for newer version?

JW: It’s a very good question. Thank you, I like that question. I see this in terms of the maker movement. That’s really interesting because if you’ve got something that has been made with love and care and you treasure it and that’s a difference. And actually something doesn’t have to be craft made and you can still love mass products. If you’re still interested there’s a guy called Daniel Miller, he’s an anthropologist from London, he wrote a lovely book called “The Comfort of Things” and in it there is a lovely example of some people who loved McDonalds’ toys, those free toys that come with McDonalds’ meals. And these people cherished them and loved them. And I think it’s a really important point because it is very easy to this mismatch production. I know that there is a problem because there is so many of them but individually you can still love mass products as much as something that’s going handcraft or natively. You may have come across behavioral psychology and the Ikea effect. Have you Adam?

AP: Of course.

JW: So the Ikea effect basically is if you’ve made something yourself, you’ve done it more highly probably than you should. Have you ever bought something in Ikea?

AP: Yeah, of course I did. 

JW: So when you bought something in Ikea and made it yourself it means much more to you. I’m not anti-mass production enemy and that things but I want to single out how companies position their goods. Probably the standout example is Patagonia one of the things they care about is environment, so they have that lovely campaign where you don’t buy unless you need to which is wonderful in all sort of way. So what they did was they position their goods to something you look after, you fix, you care about. There’s another example by Netherland’s denim company, unfortunately I can’t think what they’re called [Mud Jeans – AP]. You don’t buy a pair of jeans from them, you rent them. When you finish with your jeans you send them back to be recycled so that they can be used and used and used.

AP: You say in your book that experimentalism is the best solution for stuffocation. Is this approach suitable for almost everyone? Can everyone be an experimentalist?

JW: Yeah! It’s a great question. Everyone should be an experimentalist because that makes you happier. And if it’s a rich person’s problem and if you’ve got that stuff you can do this and it is not for poor people that’s nonsense because the problem with materialism is that truly existing social hierarchy. In the consumer system by definition there are people at the top of the tray and people at the bottom of the tray and it doesn’t matter where you exist you always be somebody with more than you with a bigger car, a better handbag and a nicer pair of shoes so you always be aware that there are people who are more than you, more successful than you. And that is important in terms of our satisfaction, how do we feel about ourselves.

George Orwell wrote a book “Down and Out in Paris and London” and in that book he is down and out in Paris and London and he just get buying and buying until the time he’s living on the street. The thing is that rich people of course can do things that poor people can’t but then a poor person might be doing something that is some kind of simple. Let me give you a really good example. Your neighbours Adam, fly from Katowice to Paris, and from Paris to Rio de Janeiro for two week holiday. And you go camping for your two week holiday about one hour drive from where you live, you take a train to get there or something like this. And when you’re back you have a conversation and there’s no doubt that they had more fancy holidays, that they spent much more money and had wonderful holiday. And you had a really rainy weather all the time. There’s no doubt they had fancier holiday than you. But did they have a better holiday than you? Were they happier? Did it bring them closer to the place they went to? We don’t know. Chill champagne on Brazilian beach tastes better than warm beer on a rainy wet day on the beach in England. I think it could be the same in Poland. Fancier stuff does not necessarily makes us happy. If your friends have got a BMW and you’ve got a Lancia, they’ve got better car than you. If your neighbours go to Brazil for a fancy holiday and you go camping locally. They have fancier holiday but do they have better holiday? It’s different. There was a research and people were asked if you could swap holidays for somebody else’s would you do it? And half of them said no, because that holidays were theirs. It was their experience. You can’t swap that. But you could change your car for BMW, right? A lot of people would like to have a BMW.

AP: The other thing is that its hard to swap experiences. In my opinion it’s better to have better experience than better stuff because you can always talk about your experience, about everything you’ve seen on holidays etc. What’s the point of talking about new BMW, we know everything about it – we know all its parameters, the price and the horse power and this is just a regular stuff but experience is something much more. How could the world evolve if we put greater attention to experiences than to items? What global changes could we notice then?

JW: Oh yes, it’s a very good question. The world is really changing and there’s a lot of evidence. The impact that you have is firstly that it is not a silver bullet, it is not something that can be done with a click of your fingers or switched over one day and it’s solve the problem of the environment. People fundamentally look for stative happiness, identity and meaning not in gathering more things but in doing more things. It does not necessarily follow the perspective of the environment. But if you think about it, if your happiness is predicate on having more stuff that stuff has to be made so that we could have it. If you shift from doing that, if you shift from having to doing you will have a smaller impact on the environment. That is a massive focus. I think that is the part of the solution.

Other aspect to it is if you could solve that happiness perspective it could really help with the anxiety and the question that we see in modern successful society. It is a funny time where basically in many ways we have thousands of things to do and we are scared of and it is really something we can do. If you look at Brazil which is considered incredibly important now, data suggests that. People who are successful in life are Brazilian – not clever. If you look at your benefits of experimentalism vs. materialism, we are very close to the stuff that is important to Brazilians. If you do something you achieve something and that makes you feel good. But if you do something and you fail, wow, that fail is a really good learning. And you even realize that failure is not something bad. If you tried to climb to the top on Mount Everest and you fail – no you haven’t failed, you’ve gone up there and you’ve given a go. If you go to the shop and get another pair of shoes that’s not good for you. It’s like big high does nothing for you. It’s different when you do something. There’s also an aspects that brings you closer to other people, which also brings you closer to who you are. And I think you if have a better sense of who you are and with this potential you can create a really great social cohesion. I don’t know what the issues are in Poland as far as social cohesion is concerned but as I know they are very well. Unfortunately most of us do not realize that the guy who lives in Paraguay, or the guy who lives in Russia, or the guy who lives in Vietnam, or the guy who lives in Canada, you and I Adam we are pretty similar. We are really similar people. And I think that experimentalism vs. materialism will bring us closer. Partly because it won’t separate. Partly because looking for our happiness to experiences it will give us something interesting, something that brings us closer to other people. Yes positive, hugely positive.

AP: What should we do if we feel the need for a change and we want to move from stuffocation to experimentalism. Where to start and what to take as a checkpoint if we want to make this switch?

JW: This is something that can be found in my book in appendix “3 steps to be an experimentalist”. I spend a lot of time thinking about it and the most important thing you can do is to spend more on experiences and less on stuff. And what’s the starting point to that? You could get rid of stuff that you really don’t need. But a key really is to shift your spending . Let’s say you’re not aware of how much you spend on stuff. Now make a measure. Work out how much you’re spending on things every month. And then because once you are aware of it that changes your perspective. Personally, I like to measure what I spend on, and that’s why I am aware. Maybe start with your own house. Look down how much pair of shoes you’ve got. Do you need all of those shoes? Do you use all those shoes? I like the ideas of stickers. When you put a colorful sticker on something when you have worn or haven’t worn. I think that clothes are a great example. But if you haven’t worn something for 3 months, I mean it’s different with your ski clothes or shorts for summer, but if you haven’t worn something for 3 or 6 months what do you do with it. You don’t need that stuff. What you really keeping it for? And actually you realize that you need that stuff only because you thought you need it. But the key is what you spend your time and focus on NOW. The next time you find yourself about to go and buy a new bit go, open your wardrobe and find out that you’ve something to job or anywhere. It’s an important thing to go as quickly as possible and spend that money on experience. So that you’ll get this tangible, emotional and instant benefit of spending money on experience not on stuff. If you have 50 euros, you have to spend it on doing something. So what are you going to do? You’re going to have lunch, go to the cinema, go to the theatre maybe go and do an activity you haven’t done before or maybe go to training you’ve never been before. Or maybe just go to the pub with friends and spend your time with them. Whatever you do, you get the feel, you really feel that magical experience that you spend time with people. Even if you do that on your own, you have a great sense of who you are, you have a story to tell which is more than stuff.

AP: I totally agree. The last question is really important for me because it’s about triathlon. In your book you mention the state of flow connected with experiences. What is the easiest way to describe it and how to know this state in our everyday life? Because I am a triathlete and I know the feeling of crossing the final line which is incomparable, especially it cannot be compared to the feeling of buying. Is this the flow you mention? Something pretty close to this state?

JW: No, that’s not flow. There is a movie that is now coming out which I think you might be interested. I have posted it on Facebook, on “Stuffocation” page on Facebook. And I’ve mentioned it not only because I’m in it, but because it’s about experimentalism and it’s about this obstacle course races. It’s called “Rise of the Sufferfests”. You’ll love it because you’re a triathlete and it also fits really nicely with stuffocation. It explains why in a modern world of computers, easy life and abundance we are doing things like triathlon or obstacle course races or some other things like this.

Flow is when you’re doing something, when you are so in the moment that you forget everything else. When you make somebody laugh, or when you’re dancing in a club and the music is pumping through your body and you’re just really into it. Or when you’re watching Poland play Germany (we were talking during EURO 2016), you are not thinking about tomorrow, you’re not thinking about deadline you’ve got, you’re not thinking about work, you’re not thinking about the argument you had with your girlfriend or your mum, you are not thinking about the things you have to do, you are watching Poland play Germany! Or when you are cycling on a bicycle when you are going down the hill with your feet on the pedals, or when you are skiing and you are going down the hill really fast or you are diving into cold water, you are right in the moment. And when you are on a triathlon and you are just in that moment you’re cycling, running or swimming and all you’re doing is the thing you’re doing. You’re not thinking about finishing. You’re not thinking about starting, you’re not thinking about anything apart from the thing you’re doing at that time. So when you finish, you get an incredible sense of satisfaction, this massive chemical rush. When people buy something they also get a rush but it’s different. If you think about humans achieving something – getting berries that we can eat, killing an animal so we can eat, think about caveman here, that gives huge satisfaction. We’ve got something that keeps us alive for longer. Achievement is a really important thing. And buying something gives you that hit of achievement “I’ve done something” but of course it came straight in an artificial way. Imagine Machu Picchu in Peru when you’ve got a helicopter to go and see it, wonderful you see it, it’s great. Or you can hike to Machu Picchu. It’s a bit like if your parents would give you 100.000 euro so you could buy a home vs. if you set up a business and you earn that money. Or if you would go to an escort agency and pay for somebody to go out with you for dinner vs. you go and meet somebody and you say “Hey do you want to have dinner with me?” and he said yes. The one is some kind of a lazy way. And the other one is the real sense of achievement. If you’ve ever climbed up a mountain getting to the top it’s like “yes, I’ve done it”. So in term of what flow is, flow is when you’re in the moment of doing a thing!

Adam Przeździęk: It was a huge pleasure to have this 30 minutes with you.

James Wallman: “Dziękuje” (“Thank you” in Polish). Adam, have a great day!

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