Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’sConsumer Republic

In the cybereconomy, it’s better to receive than give
The scenario has launched a thousand holiday-season commercials. It is Christmas morn and the family is gathered around the tree, tearing into its gifts. Dad unwraps his present, only to find a ghastly sweater several sizes too small. Little Joey rips open a package to discover that Aunt Gladys has given him socks. Dopey hubby presents his wife with a vacuum cleaner, or worse, the fishing rod that he wanted. The premise is an advertising perennial because almost everyone can identify with it. Who hasn’t employed that frozen smile of gratitude in the face of a lousy gift?
Now, through the miracle of the Internet, such scenes are becoming obsolete. Thanks to the cybershopping phenomenon of wish lists, one never need be held hostage to grandma’s atrocious taste or mom’s sense of practicality again.
Instead, one can register on a site such as Yahoo!, browse the offerings of the cybershops and pick one’s own gifts, down to the size, color and model number. The giver need only log on and consult the wish list, choose one of the preselected desirables, pick a wrapping paper and the task is done. It’s like giving a present to oneself, except somebody else pays for it. Forget about naughty or nice. Wish lists guarantee you get exactly what you want. What contemporary consumer would settle for anything less?
Logic tells us there can be no giving without a giver. No more. Like the travel agent and the stockbroker, the giver has been disengaged by the point-and-click economy. Forget the middleman standing between you and your desires; wish lists take the giver out of giving.
For homo sapiens, the practice of gift giving is no small matter. From the Maori to Manhattanites, gifts are a distinctly human means of establishing power relations, demonstrating wealth, expressing religious devotion and offering love.
For all the complaints about the commercialization of Christmas, gift giving is the soul of the season, a central feature of winter solstice celebrations crossing epochs, cultures and faiths. Gifts are the physical embodiment of the ties that bind.
That is why anthropologists have studied the practice of gift giving since the dawn of the discipline. Their studies, however, have always focused on the actions of the giver to the givee. What will they make of the new paradigm, in which the real actor in giving is the consumer, i.e., the recipient? Like everything else in the millennial economy, giving has become consumer-centric.
The erosion of the role of the giver and the abstraction of gifts are not sudden developments. A generation ago, for example, the giving of money or gift certificates to loved ones on special occasions was considered somewhat gauche. Nice people didn’t do it. Back then, the thought really did count.
Exchanging gifts wasn’t just a matter of trading objects, but of making reciprocal sacrifices of time and effort. The perfect gift said something about the identity of both the giver and the recepient.
Over the last 25 years, however, these taboos fell away. Today, a check is considered a thoughtful and practical gift, appreciated by bridal couples and high school grads who’d prefer to choose their own presents, thank you very much.
Moreover, today money is more abstract, mere information traveling to and fro over data networks. Add that to the fact that everyone is pressed for time or is always looking for ways to minimize effort, and pre-selected point-and-click giving seems inevitable. Indeed, it has already spread from the Internet to the mall. (As online shopping does a better job of re-creating the traditional shopping experience, brick-and-mortar retailers will survive and prosper by imitating online shopping.)
Wish lists also fit neatly into the ethos of mass customization. In a world where we’re loathe to let any institution make choices for us, are we really expected to sit back and let our friends and family decide what gifts we get? Are we going to let someone else select the objects that define us? It’s not just warding off Uncle Marvin’s bad taste. It’s that no one’s taste but our own will do.
Like all forms of self-empowerment in the cybereconomy, the benefit of getting exactly what you want doesn’t come free. We pay for satisfaction guaranteed with our labor. With the old model, the giver made the effort. With a wish list, the recipient does the work. Yes, it’s the thought that counts, but the givee is the one who’s doing the thinking– and the trend feeds on itself.
Who’ll have time to shop for anyone else when everyone’s busy picking gifts for oneself? K