27 February 2004


I've been reading James Twitchell's surprisingly interesting book Living it Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury. (A big thank you to Indri at Waterbones, who turned me on to it.) It's a discursive cultural criticism book, and while it has a bit of the lefty uneasiness about consumer culture that you would expect, it takes a pretty nuanced view and argues that there is something profoundly democratic about the marketing of luxury products.

He talks a lot about how a certain lust for luxury things is inevitable, sometimes in spite of yourself. There's a terrific passage written by his daughter, who went with him on a shopping / anthropology expedition.

This was an experiment in how the other half — the decadent, materialistic half who threw money away — lived. I believe myself to be everything the woman in Tiffany thought I wasn't: intelligent, self-sufficient, not given over to the whimsical spending of large amounts of money.

Still and yet, when the saleslady pulled out the Gucci bag of the moment, and when my dad pretended he was thinking of buying it for me, there was part of me that was thinking, quite simply, “I want that.'' Everywhere we went, I spent longer than was necessary inspecting the evidence. I was a sucker. Watching a woman in Armani try on the $20,000 beaded dress, I was momenarily entranced — and more than slightly jealous. The stuff was so BEAUTIFUL, and when I looked down at my Old Navy sweater, I couldn't help but feel a bit wanting. And that part of me just kept thinking, “Maybe some day .... ” And so luxury sucked me in, even as I knew I was there solely to be critical of it.


Luxury is incredibly powerful, and it gets to almost all of us, even when we're told it's meaningless. Luxury 1, Liz 0.

This makes me think of a strange and wonderful talk I heard years ago by a guy named Brian Moriarty at the Computer Game Developers' Conference. He was talking about why a the web was a success, and a big online hit game was inevitable. On the way, he said something about the roots of human behavior that stuck in my mind.

Biologists explain pleasure by invoking a process they call “natural selection.”

This process is said to favor the evolution of brains that give positive feedback for behaviors which provide a survival advantage.

In other words, nature rewards life-affirming behaviors with pleasure.

That's why it feels good to eat.

Nature rewards a healthy appetite.

That's why it feels good to collect things.

Nature rewards acquisitiveness.

And that is why it feels good to talk and to play.

Nature rewards communicators.

It feels good to communicate.
The ways of natural selection are indeed Strange.

Some of you are going to cash in on the Internet and attain positions of power and influence.

Nature rewards a healthy appetite.

Some of you will create new technologies and companies and become comfortably wealthy.

Nature rewards acquisitiveness.

Moriarty's crystal ball turned out to be pretty good, considering that we gave the talk in 1996. Though as my mother will tell you, Moriarty didn't have to look far: the killer app in online games is bridge ....