[Paleopsych] NYT: Mass-Produced Individuality

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Jan 4 23:13:42 UTC 2006

Mass-Produced Individuality

    The Way We Live Now

    Many people used to make their own clothes and build their own
    furniture. The Industrial Revolution, with technological
    innovations like power looms and power lathes, and now today's
    far-flung supply chains, made it easier and more practical to buy
    ready-made apparel and housewares. Lately, however, mass production
    has been cast not so much as the best thing that ever happened to
    consumers but as an annoyance, even a problem. It stands in the way
    of our individuality. What can save us?

    Of course the answer must be more technological innovation, and in
    the past several years there have been many attempts to tweak mass
    production (of everything from sneakers to M&M's) in ways that will
    deliver "mass customization" and "the one-to-one future," in which
    every single consumer gets unique treatment. One of the most
    intriguing experiments has been CafePress, a company that has been
    around since 1999 and allows anyone with rudimentary command of a
    computer the opportunity to, as the site says, "make your own
    stuff." That is, you can place your own designs or slogans or
    whatever onto a variety of commodities provided by CafePress:
    T-shirts, hats, teddy bears, coffee mugs, pillows, clocks, mouse
    pads and so on. According to the company, more than two million
    people or companies have used its services to create more than 18
    million "unique items." CafePress has shipped 2.6 million orders
    (taking a cut, of course). Here is individuality on a mass scale.

    The variety of products offered is sprawling, and aside from
    serving as a way for the consumer to make things, CafePress is
    often used is as a virtual gift shop for other Web sites. One top
    CafePress "shop" is connected to "This Old House," the television
    show. But most are not so well known. Another top shop is the
    Lactivist, a pro-breastfeeding Web site. Recent "hot designs"
    promoted on CafePress include items from the Bacon Ribbon Store
    (which offers products showing a strip of bacon twisted into a
    ribbon and a slogan about "obesity awareness") and Pedro '08 bumper
    stickers, for people who still enjoy humorous references to the
    film "Napoleon Dynamite." Stay Free!, a Brooklyn-based magazine
    that generally takes a dim view of American consumer culture, uses
    CafePress to sell T-shirts and mugs promoting the nonexistent
    parody drug Panexa ("Ask your doctor for a reason to take it"). Not
    surprisingly, a significant number of customized products are
    related to blogs - or as the search feature on the site puts it:
    "1,702 designs about 'blog' on 32,721 products."

    The mass-versus-custom balancing act is actually a very old thing.
    More than a hundred years ago, Mme. Demorest's Emporium of Fashion
    in New York did a brisk business selling stylish dress patterns,
    allowing consumers to conform to the latest fashion but still
    requiring them to make the garment; even when 50,000 copies of one
    pattern sold, it was quite likely that no two dresses were exactly
    the same. The new version of mass customization does not seek to
    turn back the clock to that era: do-it-yourself publications like
    Make and ReadyMade have their constituencies, but most people who
    want, say, "unique" footwear do not actually want to learn how to
    manufacture a shoe. They want to pick out a color scheme on a
    sneaker made by a company with vast and sophisticated manufacturing
    capabilities. Alienation from the means of production is a selling

    CafePress plays to that sentiment, and to another: while it's cool
    to make your own things with a few clicks and no particular
    knowledge of production details, it's even cooler to sell those
    things to other people. True individuality is a little lonely, and
    conformity is easier to swallow if you're an originator rather than
    a follower. I will admit to feeling this pull. I used CafePress to
    put a made-up slogan on a coffee mug. While pleased at my
    expression of individuality, I decided almost immediately to dabble
    in virtual production, impose that individuality on the broader
    public and throw open the doors to my own virtual CafePress shop.
    In the end my complete individuality remains secure - that is,
    after many months, I was still my only customer. Finally I withdrew
    my product from the market; I had lived the one-to-one future.

    E-mail: [3]consumed at nytimes.com.

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