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]


So, Whittier, having run into and heard out the "small, dusky-browed German," is staring down at Lowell, the Dubai-like showpiece of new American power. And he wonders to what end would all the factories of Lowell be put? What were all these machines for?

Looking down, as I now do, upon these huge brick workshops, I have thought of poor Etzler, and wondered whether he would admit, were he with me, that his mechanical forces have here found their proper employment of millennium making. Grinding on, each in his iron harness, invisible, yet shaking, by his regulated and repressed power, his huge prison-house from basement to capstone, is it true that the genii of mechanism are really at work here, raising us, by wheel and pulley, steam and waterpower, slowly up that inclined plane from whose top stretches the broad table-land of promise?

He probably would not have been surprised to find out that 167 years later, the genii of mechanism have succeeded largely in placing more kinds of chips upon "the broad table-land of promise."

This is not as anti-consumer culture as it sounds. Change of the big groovy sort seems beyond our reckoning. (After all, I like being particular about what I care about buying.) It's more a question of balance in society, a self-consciousness about means and ends.

Quinn Norton put it brilliantly in another context: "I want to say there are inflection points where the scale of things changes the nature of what they do." So, yeah, we've always had consumer culture and junk food R&D and sales. But somewhere along the line, it got huge. Innovation meant patenting variations on potato chips and their bags.

We stopped fixing bridges and dams and pipelines -- and started turning out ever more complex variations on things that we already have and that work just damn fine.

But perhaps realizing that we expend massive resources developing chip bags with just the right sound is a good thing. The silliness of the enterprise is the sort of thing that could symbolize why we need to do something different. And then we can, as Silicon Valley luminary Tim O'Reilly likes to say, "work on stuff that matters."