Social Issues

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Creatures of the Mall

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Anti-consumerist critics don't merely have billion-dollar ad campaigns working against them, argues cultural writer Thomas Hine, author of the witty and informative I Want That: How We All Became Shoppers (HarperCollins). Such shopping nags are going head to head with the entire recorded history of man.

"As far back as you can go in the fossil record, we've always been acquirers of things, not just for their practical value, but for their symbolic and political value," says Hine. "Shopping is the manifestation of that in the last 500 years."

Also the author of Populuxe (1987) and The Total Package (1997), Hine is a monthly columnist for Philadelphia magazine. Previously, he was The Philadelphia Inquirer's longtime architecture and design critic. Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder spoke to Hine in January (via a brand new, pocket-sized, Alpine silver cell phone).

Q: Can we really trust your positive history of consumerism? After all, you are hawking a book.

A: Well, one of the reasons I wrote it was the amazingly robust anti-consumption market. Being against consuming things is the best-established market niche out there. It's far better than my own niche, that of explaining and even celebrating consumption.

Q: Why is our urge to shop worth defending?

A: One way we define individual freedom is by the ability to invent ourselves: how we want to look, what kind of values we want to express. Shopping and the idea of personal freedom grow up side by side. That's not to say they're synonymous.

Q: Can it have negative effects?

A: Obviously. It's like eating or almost anything else—you can do too much. But the people who have been condemning excess and luxury for thousands of years have usually been quite comfortable themselves. They usually are condemning the luxury of the lower classes. You can go back to Aristotle, and he sounds exactly like today's anti-consumerists.

Q: Why do so many social critics hate shopping?

A: Simon Patton, one of the first professors at the Wharton Business School, said the definition of a society with a high standard of living is one that desires things intensely and tires of them quickly. Today's critics seem to come out of that tradition of thought.

Critics always say that I overstate the degree to which people are free to buy what they want. But I'm not arguing for a minute that sellers aren't trying to manipulate our tastes through marketing and packaging. I just don't happen to believe it works as well as the critics think. If it did, it would be easier to get people to buy my book.

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