Today’s Obsession: Things are Broken

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Thumbnail for Today's Obsession: Things are Broken
printing press

a view of a printing press at work, from Flickr member waferboard

I spend a lot of my daily design time looking at meta-conversations happening around our culture—mostly in the news—to try and decide what it means for the progress and meaning of my life and work. These meta-conversations are usually quiet and long, happening over periods of months or years, stringing together events one by one.

The thing that’s freaking me out about our cultural motion right now is that it seems to be so very broken at its core—much more than just a few years ago. Basic, simple ideas are easily contradicted. We’re in the middle of a huge sea change in the way our lives are to be lived for a long time, and right now, the effects of that turning of the rudder is making everything… pretty awful.

In the media, we’re absolutely hammered with guilt-soaked factoids about global warming, that we’re destroying the planet with our lifestyles of consumption. We’re told that every little decision we change to be less consumer-based will mean less unnecessary production, therefore less pollution. But is that really true? Is it really that easy, just stop consuming and things will get better? No. Absolutely not. The systems creating that waste are far too complex to respond to something so simple.

Here’s an example: we, like every other household in Chicago, automatically receive from the Chicago Tribune, two weekly bundles of useless coupons called Local Values (“three pints of Häagen Dazs for the price of two!”). We’re not newspaper subscribers, never have been, so I’m mystified as to why we get them. We also get, because our household is in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood, three copies of weekly issue of Hoy! which is the Trib’s trashy, gossipy tabloid for the city’s South American-descended audience. It’s complete dreck, and seems to be generally concerned with promotions for Galavision’s telenovelas and FIFA’s soccer coverage. We use neither of these publications for anything but starting fires.

There are instructions to stop receiving both papers by emailing an email address or leaving a voicemail. To do so would theoretically take about 200 pounds of printed, manufactured paper per year—just for our household alone—out of circulation. But the Tribune has not removed our address from the list, will not reply, will not give me an actual person to talk to who handles these lists, despite my months of requests. We, as a result cannot stop consuming as much, because it’s literally thrown on our doorstep without consent every single week.

Looking up the “value chain,” Local Values and Hoy! both have significant numbers of “readers,” like me, whom they use to promote their “value” to potential advertisers. It’s exactly the same thing as banner advertising sales tactics, except in the real world. My hunch is that if they actually take everyone who’s asked off their lists as they say they will, their value will eventually decline because they can no longer prove ad dollars are getting to those eyeballs. That means a significant revenue stream for our already-fragile local news source will get smaller, and then suddenly, locals know less about how they live. In ultra-corrupt Chicagoan government, that would be paradise.

But since there’s no actual exchange of money between us and the Tribune, no harm done, so who cares? They don’t edit their lists, we recycle the papers (assuming the city’s recycling program is actually working like they say it is, which i doubt). It keeps on happening, and I can’t stop it.

This means that I am utterly powerless to stop this aspect of my personal consumption simply because I exist in Chicago. The fact that I am contributing to waste just by being a name and an address with a pulse is crazy, and is proof positive that some of our essential systems—like this publication’s revenue stream—are broken, insanely poorly designed, at their most basic levels. Things are going to be hard for a very long time unless there’s a massive wake-up call, like, now.