Produce, consume, repeat: what the science fiction of Frederik Pohl tells us about consumption

These days it’s all but impossible to separate the things we produce from the things we consume. Whether it be working on a production line, or staying at home raising children, many of the things that we do are a form of production – whether we get paid for that work, or not. And yet at the same time, we are also consumers, for we all pay bills, we all shop for food, and we all send our children to school.

Things then become problematic when production and consumption start to blur, for we produce in order to consume, but we also consume in order to produce. Whether it be catching a bus or paying for lunch, even the process of working itself is a form of consumption, and more often than not, many of us will also then consume the same product we have a hand in producing.

To help us understand these issues, we can take lessons from science fiction – in particular, the work of Frederik Pohl (1919–2013), who explores the possible consequences of consumerism and what happens when production and consumption become one and the same. In an article I recently published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, I explore some of Pohl’s most important works in this area, and the implications of a world where humans become complicit in the means of their own subjugation and we become trapped in an endless spiral of produce-consume-repeat. This is especially relevant today, as social media in particular is transforming our lives such that we don’t even produce any more, but rather, we become the very product that our friends and followers consume.

Mechanical toy robots. Photo by Craig Sybert on  Unsplash

Living to work

In The Space Merchants (1952), co-authored with C.M. Kornbluth, the main character, Mitchell Courtenay, is a star-class copywriter tasked with recruiting colonists to start a new life on the planet Venus. However, it soon transpires that Venus is all but uninhabitable, and consumers are being sold a terrible lie.

While Courtenay’s ability to sell anything to anyone grants him social status and prestige, he soon finds himself at the centre of a battle between two rival advertising firms. This leads him to experience first-hand the consequences of his copywriting work, and reveals to him the cycle that forces workers to spend their hard-earned money on the very materials they need to continue working.

In many respects The Space Merchants pre-empts much of the real-life criticism that was to emerge in the 1950s. This criticism includes Vance Packard’s seminal work The Hidden Persuaders (1957), a book in which the author describes a real-life dystopia where marketers use psychological techniques to influence human behaviour. If marketers want to turn consumers into unthinking robots, then where does this leave the human?

Working to live

Pohl explores some of the implications of The Space Merchants in his short story ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954). The story follows the journey of Morey Fry as he seeks to make his way in a world where social status is tied to levels of consumption. In order to meet his consumption quotas, Fry decides to adjust the programming of his servant robots so that they consume goods on his behalf. This leads him to be heralded a genius by the scientific community for ‘solving’ the problem of consumption.

Clearly, there are many crossovers between the mass-consumption of ‘The Midas Plague’, and our modern-day world. By setting robots to consume on his behalf, so Fry exposes the robot-like behaviour of humans in which we each become trapped in a never-ending cycle that we all have a part in creating.  It is particular interesting that Fry fits his robots with satisfaction circuits that prompt them to work harder and faster at consuming the same goods they have some hand in creating.

In many ways, this mirrors the same conundrum exposed in The Space Merchants, where workers are trapped in a world in which they must work in order to consume, and the products of their labour are directly linked to those same items they consume. However, in ‘The Midas Plague’ this concept is taken one stage further as it opens up the question of desire, and the way robotic ‘prosumers’ are compelled to continue the production-consumption cycle at all costs, often without realizing that they are caught in a system of their own making.

Manufacturing desire

These are but two of many examples in science fiction where authors explore the many ways in which human beings are caught up in the means of their own repression. While philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Roberto Esposito have much to say on these issues, science fiction gives us a platform through which to engage with these same questions, and relate them to our everyday lived experience.

So, next time you find yourself posting on social media, or writing a review of a product online, consider just how and why you’re creating content for others to consume, and how your own behaviours form part of the abstract machine that turns us all into producing-consuming robots.

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