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I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppersby Thomas Hine
Why We Want Objects and How They Change Us I noticed the old woman as soon as I drove into the Wal-Martparking lot. Actually, I couldn't help it because she was blocking my car. Leaning on her walker, oblivious to the impatient shoppers who were honking to express their displeasure at my refusal to run her over, she made her way, inch by laborious inch, toward the entrance of the sprawling discount store.
She eventually found a shopping cart in the parking lot and, in a quick motion that was almost graceful, picked up her walker and put it into the cart. Then, using the rolling shopping cart for support, she was able to quicken her pace and soon reached the store entrance. And the rest of us were able to park and pursue whatever we were after.
I kept wondering about her as I walked toward the store myself. Why did she feel compelled to go to so much trouble? What did she really need?
Once we were inside the store, our paths kept crossing. Every time I saw her she was at a rack or a bin, closely scrutinizing skirts or shorts or tops. After half an hour or so, she had a variety of small items in her cart, all of them purchases one assumed she could live without, but none of them luxurious or self-indulgent.
When I finally asked her about her trip, she shrugged off the notion that it was an ordeal. She came regularly, by bus, she said. Today she intended to pick up some things she needed around the house and something for her grandchildren, though there wasn't,, anything she absolutely had to have. "I just like to get out of the house," she said, "and do a little shopping."
What was precious toher was not any particular object but rather the ability to go out on her own and make a choice. She told me that she had to be careful not to put more in her cart than she could carry on the bus. And she needed to be careful with her money. But by getting out to the store, she was able to feel selfreliant, generous, and thrifty. The few items in her cart were almost incidental to her desire to prove something to herself and to those around her. As long as she could get to the store, nobody could say that she was incompetent. She was still able to live a normal life. And by bringing gifts to her grandchildren, she was asserting her importance in the lives of her family members.
You might conclude, then, that the act of going shopping was more important than anything in the cart, but that would not be entirely true. Going shopping might be an assertion of her abilities, but the things she carried home are proof of her power.
Using objects to make connections between people and establish one's authority is an ancient and universal form of human behavior. Other species make limited use of tools to establish specific tasks, but only humans — so far as we can tell — place objects at the very heart of their societies. For all people, at least since Neolithic times, things have been repositories of power. Those who possessed key objects have been the rulers and wizards of their peoples. A king's crown, a chief's mantle, a shaman's collection of mysterious charms, a rappers jewel-studded teeth have served as sources of authority and magic.
Through most of history, desirable objects have been few and precious. Ambitious people gained dominance by seizing them. Already powerful people maintained their position by bestowing gifts on allies and potential adversaries. Priests and priestesses proclaimed their access to the spiritual world by using ritual objects that invoke supernatural powers. When powerful things fall into the wrong hands, the order of the society is at risk. Throughout history, rulers and religious leaders have worked not merely to amass powerful things for themselves, but to prevent others from doing so. By limiting the dissemination of objects, they sought to keep control.
Contemporary society represents the worst nightmares of such rulers and shamans. Even the poor can afford to live cluttered lives, and amid such abundance it is difficult to establish authority. Possessions no longer affirm the chief's right to rule, but they are essential to the exercise of another sort of power: the consumer's right to choose. My Wal-Mart acquaintance didn't imagine that the items in her cart had anything in common with a monarch's crown, but they were political statements, albeit of another sort. They were declarations of independence.
Even today, shopping is not the only way in which people deal with the power of things. People still steal things, often to seize the power of the things themselves. Young people die because robbers want their cool shoes. And the exchange of gifts is still a very powerful way in which people establish connections and obligations among themselves.
But shopping is our chief exercise of the power of things. It is a ritual so tightly integrated into the fabric of our lives we scarcely realize that it is there. In contemporary society, most people are already learning to shop before they can read a word or utter more than a handful of meaningful sounds. It is, child psychologists have observed, one of the earliest ways in which people begin to understand the world and to develop their personalities.
Three out of four American babies visit a store, usually a supermarket, by the age of six months, though some start virtually at birth. They soon begin to realize that the store is the source of some of the good things that they had previously associated solely with their parents. Some time after that, at around age two on average, they begin pointing at and indicating their desire for things that they see at the store ...
I Want That!. Copyright © by Thomas Hine. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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