Saturday, 29 November 2014

Strictly Business: Black Whyday?

Yesterday was Black Friday, and with it comes the usual stories of crowds going out of control trying to score those big bargains and the usual tut-tutting about how the obscene consumerism of shoppers marks the decline and inevitable fall of civilization. 
Traditional Black Friday Visual Gag

Actually, the behaviour of Black Friday shoppers is not because civilization is falling, it's because civilization has outpaced the wiring in the human brain.

The first thing you have to know is that the material plenty we enjoy today is an extremely recent development. For millions of years humans lived in conditions of extreme scarcity that would shock the people of modern "Third World" nations. Communications and travel ranged from extremely hard to practically impossible. Whether or not you ate, or starved depended almost entirely on the weather. Even if you were able to scrape together enough resources to live in relative comfort, and by that I mean warm, dry, and well fed, there was always the threat of some idiot with a club or sword coming to take it all away from you and use your head as a decoration.

That's the way the world worked for millennia. Eventually humanity figured some things out. First we went from hunting and gathering to farming. Then we began to gather into communities to protect ourselves from the idiots, but those communities ended up under the "protection" of guys with swords who now called themselves Kings.

This system lasted millennia and while life got slightly better, humanity's material existence still danced on the razor's edge. If it didn't rain enough, or rained too much, or rained at the wrong time, then everyone in the kingdom was going to starve.

Trade between kingdoms eased this slightly, but could only go so far because of a myth. This myth was that life was a zero sum game, which means that in order for someone to win, someone must lose.

This is true in board games, but in commerce it's positively destructive. This means that trade, which could have been a means to peaceful interaction, was often used as an excuse for war. If your neighbour has more grain than you, you don't trade your excess supply of grapes for it, you just send in an army and take their grain, using captive slave labour to get the work done.

This continued for even more millennia, and life for almost everyone was, as Hobbes' described it "nasty, brutish, and short." 

But it wasn't all darkness.

During the Renaissance certain small countries and city states people started to see commerce as a better way of getting resources than war. The idea of everybody winning in a business deal began to become a seed in the minds of humanity.

This led to competition between people, nations, and new "companies" which pushed new ideas and eventually new technology.

Then came the Industrial Revolution.

New developments in technology and manufacturing turned a lot of goods that were out of reach for the masses into everyday essentials. Suddenly the poor could afford to own a second shirt, or a pair of shoes AND a pair of boots, things only the landed gentry  and above could consider before.

Both capitalism and the study of economics began to evolve, pretty much simultaneously. Nations that embraced the products of commerce and competition began to saw their lifestyle creeping upward, slowly. The life of the average commoner in the 1800s was still closer to that of a commoner in Ancient Rome than it is to the life of a modern average schmo, but it was getting slightly better. 

Famines soon went from being the product of bad luck and bad weather to being the product of bad government agricultural/economic policies. This caused great social tumult as the peasantry was starting to see how people lived in other places and said "me too."

But the old myths of a zero-sum world still persist. Hampering many peoples, and development and prosperity was wildly uneven throughout the world. It also fuelled a lot of wannabe conquerors to use the new industrial technologies to waste lives and resources in pursuit of their primitive dreams.

The end of World War 2 caused a radical shift in how the world worked. North America boomed because its economy hadn't been bombed into the stone age. Prosperity grew and spread as many more nations opened up. The Green Revolution, led by scientist Norman Borlaug used science to take agriculture though an unimaginable paradigm shift, as the ability to transport fresh goods throughout the world took hold.

Technology rocketed skyward. Suddenly goods that used to be the purview of the wealthy, or even of governments, from clothing to computers suddenly became affordable to more and more people.

This means that us in the Developed World, have been living through an age of unprecedented material plenty. Famine in North America and Europe is now unheard of, when just a few decades years ago most of the world lived on the verge or in the depths of famine because of WW2 and/or the Cold War.

That means this age of plenty is just a blip. Imagine your arm representing human history. This age we live in, where so much is within the grasp of so many, would probably be the outer layer of skin cells on the tip of your middle finger.

That means the human brain has evolved to feel, deep down at our most primal level, that if we don't get something NOW, we will NEVER get it.

Retailers know that. That's why they go on and on about how "limited" the time or supplies for these sales are, even though they are getting longer and bigger every year. They're tapping into your brain, hitting that now or never button, and hoping you'll put them into the black for the year.

You can't really blame them, because if they didn't do it, they probably wouldn't be able to stay in business.

That's my theory, what's yours?

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