Sermon: Technology & Religion: God As Consumer

2018 November 11
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

The Gazelle Project. This is what Amazon called a new initiative to work out contracts with small publishers. The Gazelle Project. This name was coined after Jeff Bezos instructed his team to approach these small publishers “the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.”


Amazon’s approach to large publishers was not much different. Amazon sells 40% of all print books and 65% of all e-books. So even the giant powerhouse publishers like Macmillan or my publisher, Hachette, when they’re negotiating with Amazon about book prices, they have virtually no power. When Amazon didn’t like how the negotiating was going with Macmillan, they simply removed the “buy” buttons from all of Macmillan’s books on the Amazon website until an agreement was reached. With Hachette, Amazon delayed shipment of its books to customers. They make no effort to hide their tactics. If your company doesn’t agree to Amazon’s terms they will tweak their algorithms so that your books… or backpacks or toasters or toy trains or electric toothbrushes will disappear.


And all of this is in service to one thing, one shimmering, grand ideal: what the consumer wants. And what does the consumer want? Cheap goods. We want to buy stuff – a lot of stuff – and pay as little as possible. Amazon gets us there. The strongarm tactics they use allow us to buy stuff on Amazon for sometimes half as much as we would pay in a store. Exact same book, lower price; same backpack, lower price; same toaster, lower price. And buying it is quick, it’s easy, and it gets delivered to our door. What’s not to like?


Well, let’s look at what’s happening on the other end. We’ll take books as an example, but it’s happening in basically every industry. When Amazon squeezes a publisher, the publisher has to cut costs to survive. They’re not laying off the marketing and sales people; they’re laying off the editors – the intellectual and creative partners of the authors, the people who understand the literary landscape and work for months shaping each book into something uniquely valuable and high-quality for its genre.


Authors’ advances and royalties are shrinking. And authors are now acquired less on the merit of their book than on their fame and their social media platforms – in other words their likelihood of selling books. Publishers are less able to take risks on first-time authors or authors with some off-beat weird idea. They can no longer afford to. I know for a fact that if I had pitched my book even one year later, my publisher would not have bought it. That’s how quickly things are changing. And so authors are finding it harder and harder to make a living.


Now some people, including authors, say, “we didn’t want publishers to begin with. Publishers were just old-school dead white male gatekeepers preventing us from getting our books published.” Now with the blindingly bright technology of our time, anyone can publish their own book. And Amazon is not going to demand any revisions, check your facts, or bother you with conversations about your ideas. What’s more, anyone can have a blog now, a Facebook presence, a Twitter feed for free and speak directly to the world.


The tech world has marketed this as the great democratization of creativity. Instead of a cabal of white men smoking cigars in some back room determining what’s good writing and what’s worth dissemination, the people – the consumers – will decide. Anyone can be an author and the best will rise to the top naturally. In Franklin Foer’s book on this topic, World Without Mind, which I absolutely love (and I encourage all of you to go to a bookstore to buy it), he describes Jeff Bezos’ mindset: “As a matter of principle, Bezos doesn’t pose as a guardian of the community and a custodian of high ideals. That would just muzzle the market, preventing it from communicating its wishes. He believes in letting consumers, the customers around whom the world spins, have the final word.”


And the final word we are having indeed. The world is now spinning around what we consumers click on and pay for. And that leans toward the cheaper, the faster, the flashier, the easier to digest, the simpler, the more sensational, the gorier, and even the more disturbing. Journalism is getting more and more rushed as stories gravitate toward click-bait rather than in-depth reporting. Who has time to read a long story, not to mention a whole book? We click on stories and ads that are violent and that are fake more often than we click on those that are non-violent or true. And so we pay for a world where fake news and violence are ascendant. You might be thinking, “well I don’t do that.” But we collectively do. The world spins around what the consumer wants, and apparently this is it. We are all becoming Amazon’s gazelles.


In the world of Jeff Bezos, which is our world, the consumer is God. We pray to that god and we sacrifice to that god. Technology puts capitalism on overdrive with exponentially more granular responsiveness to the desires of the market. You could say that this is really about making money, and it is about making money. But this drive to make money is supported by a spiritual ideology: the ideal of consumers getting what they want. It’s gotten mixed up in our minds with the idea of democracy. It’s gotten mixed up with Darwinian natural selection. It’s gotten mixed up with the idea of freedom. Today’s technologies have brought to life a quintessentially American misty-eyed notion of “the people” finally having our voice. It’s anti-expert, anti-intellectual, and populist in exactly the way that right-wing politics is today. It’s a free market ideology on steroids: If you give consumers what they want – I mean, exactly what they want – the best products, ideas, and outcomes will prevail. The world will be a better place.


But there is tragedy embedded in this theology of our time. With the consumer as God, we humans – living, breathing, loving, relating people – get de-spiritualized. We get re-defined as consumers. We are reduced to the part of us that consumes – that takes from the world. Our outrage at the injustices of the world get redirected into injustices against us as consumers – service that’s too slow or some product that’s sub-par. As consumers we express our glorious freedom and individuality through our clicks and our dollars.


But we are so much more than clicks and dollars. The identity of consumer doesn’t begin to encompass the fullness of our being and our yearnings and our complexities and our giving and our loving on this earth. If all we are is consumers, that’s not much. And the things that we want as consumers are not always the things we will want to have received when we reach the end of our lives and look back. They are not necessarily what we want as people – as spiritual beings having a human experience on this earth. As consumers we want to buy books and music as cheaply as possible, but as humans, what we may really want is for writers and musicians to be able to make a living. As consumers we want to get our news for free, and fast, with sexy headlines and quick soundbites. But as humans what we may really want is for journalists who write deep and thoughtful pieces to have impact in the world. As consumers we want plastic straws. But as humans what we may really want is for fish and sea turtles to thrive and to move away from petroleum products for the health of all of us.


Despite these larger, fuller expressions of our selfhood, it is mostly what the consumer wants that counts in this society. Because the consumer is God. And freedom of choice is everything. But here’s the irony: as humans – in our full selfhood as humans – we have free will. But as consumers today, we are far from free. Our consumer desires are manipulated and even manufactured from scratch by corporations. This has always happened to some extent, but today’s technologies allow that manipulation to get deep inside us, using data about our habits and preferences to craft unique campaigns tailored to evoke our particular longing for products. Virtual assistants, like Amazon’s “Alexa,” and smart appliances – entire smart homes! – anticipate, suggest, and even order for you the thing you’re gonna’ want next.


When it comes to online use of products and platforms, the subtle coercion is even more powerful. One of our members here who works in the tech industry described to me how

millions of person hours, from the labor of thousands of people, at the cost of billions of dollars, have gone into designing the addictive qualities of these products. In the digital gaming industry it’s called “addiction mechanics.” In media products it is called “engagement,” “stickiness,” “session duration.”  Businesses optimize toward maximum revenue.  Revenue comes from more users using their products for more time. We’ve replaced spiritual yearning with consumer yearning and the fire of that yearning is constantly tended and stoked by these sophisticated technologies.


What we want is murky and manipulable. Bill McKibben’s opinion piece in the NY Times this week detailed how the ballot initiatives in states out west to have a carbon tax and prohibit fracking were at first pretty popular with voters. That is, until the last few weeks when the fossil fuel industry poured millions of dollars into online and TV advertising, saturating people’s consciousness with fears. Both ballot initiatives failed. Brazil’s new far-right president who wants to bulldoze the Amazon and has threatened to kill 30,000 “leftists,” same story. Just months ago, almost nobody wanted to vote for him. But multi-national corporations flooded Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging platform with fake news and hate speech. And presto, he was elected president. Is this really what we want?


It’s clear now, that getting what we want as consumers and getting what we have been manipulated into wanting is devastating our world. It is destroying human culture, writing, and the arts. It is tearing the political and social fabric of our societies. And the demand for constant extraction from the earth to fulfill these wants is bringing our ecosystems to the very brink of collapse, the most dangerous threat humanity has ever faced.


Sitting here right now with our phones in the vestibule (or at least turned off), singing and listening to great music and spending an hour together, we know that we are much more than consumers. We are life-givers and lovers and thinkers and feelers. We are humans with histories and futures. We have aspirations for ourselves and one another that go far beyond the immediate gratification of our desires. We yearn for a different kind of world than the one we’re creating right now. And if we do yearn for a different world, we are going to have to make it happen. We are going to bring that consciousness outside these doors. We are going to have to embrace higher values than what we want. Because what we want is killing us. We have to be the ones to do it. Amazon is not going to do it for us. Corporations are not going to do it for us. Technology is not going to do it for us. The government is definitely not going to do it for us. We have to do it ourselves and we have to do it together. And when we do this, we can prevail.


This week, Amazon issued a rare apology. It was to a collective of antiquarian book sellers. Amazon had decided to drop several of them off of its website with no explanation other than something vague and cavalier about payment processing. Rather than the other members of the collective just praying that Amazon doesn’t cut them off too, 600 antiquarian booksellers from around the world banded together and went on strike, removing 4 million books from Amazon. Within two days, Amazon had reinstated the ones they had dropped, and apologized. It took a cooperative of antiquarian book sellers to have to courage to put their own profits on the line and refuse to become an Amazon gazelle.


We too need to lift out of our identity as consumers and expand into our full presence as human beings. We are not individual competing monads; we are members of a community that is collectively creating our reality. Our desires don’t have to rule us; but we have to be cagey about all the powerful forces that have a vested interest precisely in our desires ruling us. The customer is not always right. The consumer is not God. But we need to use all the spiritual resources we have available to us to reclaim our time and space and sense of ourselves as people of a larger vision.


Next week we have our annual Hunger Communion and our second annual fast day where we can focus on that larger vision beyond our immediate desires. I invite all of us to participate in it in some way from sunrise to sundown. We’ll contemplate the question, “what are you hungry for?”. What are you really hungry for? What will it take to feed our souls and refuse to be Amazon’s gazelles and instead build a human culture of beauty and thought, spirit and health, wonder and touch? If it will take giving up what we “want” with a small “w” to live in service to what we Want with a big “w,” I suspect that we will find it well worth it and we’ll be a life-giving force for all the creatures of the earth.


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