SunChips and Supercapitalism

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The Internet is astir with the news that SunChips are ditching their newish bioplastic bag because it is perceived as being too loud.

Some agree with Frito-Lay's decision, others disagree, and still others point out that bioplastic is not always an environmental win. But we're all dancing around the larger point:

Competition in the snack chip market has reached such a level that the molecular composition of the chip-containing bag as reflected in the magnitude of its sound could cause a firm to lose customers!

This is a miniature portrait of Robert Reich's hyper-competitive supercapitalism at work. And though it is fundamentally a silly story, it's not only a silly story.

Imagine the scientists hunched over the bench constructing the nearly perfect biobag; the process engineers who scaled up the manufacturing line and worked out all the right controls for stuffing and sealing; the business people who cut the supplier deals and sold retailers on the novelty, begging for endcaps; the middle managers who ran the numbers and kept things moving; the quality control folks who noticed "the sound problem" but figured it was no big deal; the focus group consultants who said consumers liked the bag's design and how it made them feel, observing only in the "Use if Needed" slides though the bag had a good handfeel, it might be too noisy.

This is where we put our productive talents to work. These are good, white-collar jobs. Most of them you'd need at least a college degree to have and to hold. The great machinery induced by billion dollar markets for everything (anything) can be reconfigured for any purpose, even something as mindnumbing as flexible, lightweight chip containers.

And as this dawns on you... You think with the soaring, half-serious tone that we reserve for visions of collapse: This is what happens to a country that no longer dreams, that has lost it's sense of national purpose or greatness. You think: Maybe we do need a space program, so that we start looking up again.

You imagine arch historians glossing the year: And in 2010, the most powerful country in the world was consumed with the show Glee, whether or not a political candidate was or had been a witch, and the sound of a bag of not-quite potato chips.

Perhaps all national projects are anachronistically read onto a flattened and unrealistic past. Maybe I am grasping for a time that never existed and a sense of purpose that was Manifest Destiny ugly whenever it did. On the other hand, has it really always been like this -- a time in which every consumer acted like the snobbiest oenophile? (When everyone called themselves consumers?)

I wasn't going to write about SunChips, nor the massive technical knowhow that goes into making perfect plastic bags, but I heard the voice of an Atlantic-cofounder, John Greenleaf Whittier, demanding to be drawn into this debate.

In 1843, Whittier was sent by a magazine to check out Lowell, Massachussets, America's marvelous new manufacturing center, the City of Spindles. One night, overlooking the city, he couldn't help but think about an obscure German protofuturist named John Etzler, who wandered around Jacksonian America promoting a perfect consumer world (only driven by solar and wind energy, incidentally). The best explanation Etzler gave for the future he imagined came in his book, The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labour, by Powers of Nature and Machinery: an address to all intelligent men. Etzler's foremost biographer, Steven Stoll, gives us this lovely summation of Etzler's dreams and ideology:

Hot and cold running water, illuminated roofs and walks, agreeable scents, elevators, every convenience, and no work (all by "a turn of some crank")--it sounds like an Arizona retirement village. And that's just the point. Etzler designed not a world to come, but the world that came. His knowledge of physics might have been faulty, but his sense that human happiness would be understood as the application of technology to convenience and leisure was dead-on. [emphasis mine]


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