Thursday, November 10, 2005

Off topic: Lessons from Starbucks

The raw desolation of an empty Midwestern strip mall in the waning hours of the noon embodies the essence of the American suburbanite’s desperate existence. Outside the sun beats down on the endless empty parking lots, baking the soul out of both plants and people. Personality is eradicated. The neighborhood shops are generic big box chains. Another Walgreens. Another Pottery Barn. Another Kwiki Lube.

This is not a landscape meant for people. You can’t even walk from one store to the next. Instead, you get in your car, drive through a convoluted artery of dead pavement and cracked concrete and get out at your next capitalistic theme park destination. A sign blares at you “Yes, we have Mickey Mouse salt shakers! 50% off!”

You are not a human being to these stores. True fact: in suburbia, they model the cashiers’ stations after the queues used by the cattle industry. I’ve run the equations and calculated the break even point for adding another point of human contact. You are a source of income whose needs must be served to the minimum degree necessary for you to open your wallet.

Mile upon mile, the stores stretch in every direction. They speak a simple message, “You are here to be used. You’ll enjoy it because you know no better.” Wide eight lane streets with mini exits for Target and Walmart are packed with heavily armored SUV’s. In Middle America, it never was about community or being ecologically friendly. It has always been about surviving in a psychologically hostile wasteland.

Welcome to Big Business’s vision of the American Dream.

Recently, I was in the odd situation of having a spare hour to relax. As I drove around in circles for a good twenty minutes, it occurred to me that there is not a single location was built for satisfying this simple, basic human need. I could have headed off to the nearest King Soopers (a grocery store chain that demonstrates American’s rebellion against the most basic forums of intellectualism), but what good would that do me? Should I hang about in front of the mini-bank while I read a paper?

Finally I spotted a Starbucks and felt a wave of relief. Here was a place that I could catch a quick drink and doodle in my notebook for a short while.

As a snob and a humanist, Starbucks represents to me a derivative mockery of real culture. At some point in the past, there was a simple coffee shop with a community of patrons. The owner made the coffee. Rich aroma filled the air and comfortable jokes about the weather or the latest news were lazily exchanged. Little tables welcomed you to hang out for a moment and may even think a deep thought or two. Starbucks took that atmosphere, upped the caffeine, commercialized it, productized it, and turned it into a $1.5 billion a year business that is growing at 22% annually.

But it occurred to me as I sat at a table surrounded by the now iconic brown and green interior: “This is the best most people have.”

No wonder it is popular.

take care
Danc.

PS: This one is for Ray and Zoombapup. Zoombapup wanted to see me rant. Ray, well...I just like talking with Ray about the midwest. :-)

32 comments:

  1. Today's guest editor has been Cory Doctrow.

    :)X

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  2. I stayed with a friend over the summer break this year in Arizona. You know what the oasis was in that whole arrid desert of a city?

    It was starbucks!

    You have to admire a company that can export the french coffee shop culture back to france in such a homogenous franchise and get away with it! :)

    I still feel your holding back Dan, you need some real spleen in your rants :) this one is far too poetic.

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  3. I live in a small town without a Starbucks. We have one of those little coffee shops, a few blocks from my house. My little sister and I used to walk there after school and relax and talk about stuff. But recently, they started selling beer and put in a gambling machine, and now you have to be 18 to go inside. Now there isn't any place for miles and miles where teenagers can hang out.

    At least a Starbucks doesn't have to sell booze and have slot machines in order to stay in business.

    *is depressed*

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  4. considering most of the world has, well, comparatively nothing, it's funny to see america with its excess complaining about our excess. having everything we could possibly want readily accessible to most citizens is now something to complain about.

    probably half of the world's population would love to have a grocery store the size we scoff at because it lacks selection. and they wouldn't care if it was a whole foods or a safeway or a walmart.

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  5. Danc longs for the days when the Emporer decided that he wanted to build a new palace, complete with vast gardens, shrines and commissioned works of art and architecture.

    What he doesn't seem to realize is that such things came with a crushing price. And while a few of those palaces still remain, it is only the children of the builders who ever got to walk on the grounds, after bloody revolution, oppression and crushingly depressed economics.

    Now we all just oppress one another. We are all kings and we are all peasants.

    You're missing the fellow who works extra hours to support that Kwikilube franchise, so that he can buy a boat. Or the fellow who works hard in the server room, lifting hard drives all the while dreaming of his book being published. Or the carpet cleaner who loves college sports and runs his own website filled with statistics. Or the fellow who works a job , makes ends meet, and takes his joy and wonder not from the decorations or material objects of the community, but from learning and loving the actual people of the community, and supporting his own family--a man who can go into his own church and worship according to his own conscience--or not--without being burned at the stake. ;)

    It's a great country, formed of millions bedraggled peasants who decided that freedom trumps all... well... at least they did... when there was a frontier.

    --Ray

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  6. This is a lot like the book The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. However, if you read that book and then look at what you can see around you, you notice how things have changed in the twelve years since he wrote it. It's not that the process of homogenizing the landscape has reversed - nothing is ever undone - but it is changing for the better.

    Chin up, there, Danc. It's bad, but we've survived worse, and the trend is toward improvement.



    ...Saying it that way is probably a lot nicer than dismissing it as just another rant about how "Everything was better in the past."

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  7. This essay originally started out as a parable for a game essay that I decided not to post.

    First, people who take the 'you can't criticise the US ever' line are simple idiots. There's a lot of fear in those arguements. Fear that a little change would lead to a lot of change and that current safe havens would be destroyed. Those who argue "we like what we've got, please don't talk about improvements" are living a shallow life. It is a path that I personally am not willing to take.

    There can be things in a country that are good as well as things that are bad. To discuss the bad elements does not suddenly make a fellow dismissive of everything else.

    There are two original lessons in our little parable:
    • Misplaced business optimizations can damage the culture of a community.
    • However, by serving a wider range of needs, including both emotional and materialistic needs, a savvy company can find the opportunity for great profit. This is especially the case when an entire economic ecosystem has gone down the rat hole of reductionist profiteering.

    The basic arguement is that optimizations that drive the strip malls of America have a strong cultural element. When the shiny pated men in back offices make decisions, there are a thousand little things that reflect their cultural values. We can choose whether we have barren wastlands of concrete that are all stores. Or we can choose to have mixed usage developments where there is an attempt to create a community. The later has an improved economic payout and improved community life. But in general, business people in America cut out those details and focus on short term materialistic games. This is a cultural decision that has a strong cultural impact.

    I've seen a shockingly narrow minded philosophy that assumes that there is one type of capitalism with one logical conclusion. Strip malls are good because they are the natural conclusion to our American, capitalist philosophy. To question stripmalls is to questions the fundemental philosophy that drives this nation. (There are also people who believe that if you stop believing in God, the world will implode, but that is a story for a different time...color me a physicist if you must. :-)

    Capitalism, however, is all about serving a culture's values in an effective means. There are lots of different types and lots of different results. If you shop in Japan, you'll see a highly capitalist culture that has created a radically different interpretation of what it means to be a capitalist.

    We built stripmall because we subconsciously valued individualism over community. We valued short term efficiency over a quality human experiance. We valued company profits over family life.

    Is the Midwest better than a lot of places in the world? No doubt. Could it have made different choices and ended up being a more enjoyable *human* friendly location? There is no question in my mind.

    Starbucks simply realizes that there are human values outside of the ones that have been overengineered into the modern strip mall. They offer an emotional product that fills a need and they are rewarded for it.

    Capitalism is driven by culture and drives culture. It is not a scientific, cerebral activity but a human one with real human consequences.

    take care
    Danc.

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  8. Starbucks found a niche- a comfortable atmosphere and consistent service. They had an idea 10 years ago that set them apart from the others. In the mean time they've proceeded to take that idea and make 9,500 exact replicas of it.

    The problem is that each of those replicas is forced to follow the company theme- I see no difference between chain restaraunts and sequels to successful games or movies. I am not a fan of either.

    The Starbucks experience is shallow and I don't like what I see beneath the covers.

    Thanks for the rant though Danc :)

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  9. Whilst I sympathise with anonymous in that the West (and the US in particular) is seldom grateful for what it does have, this is a poor reason for not looking at what is wrong and wanting to fix it.

    In particular, I can state from experience that the people of West Africa (politically stable countries at least) have considerably less choice and goods than the people of North America - and yet, they seem to live substantially happier lives than the typical US citizen for the most part.

    To an outsiders eye, US citizens seldom seem very happy. Perhaps, as I believe Danc is suggesting, you might like to take steps to change that? I assure you from the bottom of my heart that being happy is infinitely better than being wealthy.

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  10. Let me spin a tale of my own.

    I live in Australia. As you may be aware, Middle Australia in the same sense as Middle America doesn't exist because it's a freaking desert. It's not profitable, usually, to build infrastructure that crosses the desert and services the small towns there. So utilities such as telephone, electricity and water are handled either by government departments or by privatised, government-owned corporations.

    This includes the post office, which long before the Internet saw the writing on the wall and examined its business carefully; it was, essentially, infrastructure. It was required, due to its monopoly, to operate in unprofitable areas, and if it didn't, UPS and FedEx would be waiting. So they did two unusual things; they leveraged their post offices and turned them into shops, carving a business out of stationary, packing goods and knicknacks, and they created licenses for any part of the chain they couldn't run profitably themselves. The post office in Australia basically only owns the larger post offices and runs the infrastructure, and outside of that, they hire contractors - parcels, mail runs, anywhere where it's cheaper to sell the license than buy a building and hire people themselves.

    My mother currently owns three licenses for post offices - two in the city, outside of the shopping centres, and one out in the vast expanse of the Australian desert. Think about it - you don't have to advertise, you have a guaranteed customer base, and the only competition you'll ever have is against other post offices. But the secret to her success is the observation that shopping malls are awful places for post offices - you can't just duck in and drop off a parcel, you have to park, you have to get in a queue, and the staff are rude when you get to the front of the queue. The benefits you get from shopping centres don't really apply to post offices, as people will actively seek you out when they want your services - you get almost nothing from window shopping. So if you ape the look of a 'real' post office, put it in a community centre where it's easy to park and just go in, and concentrate on customer service, you'll steal customers from the other post offices from word-of-mouth.

    You could build businesses on people not knowing what community really is, if you're smart enough. But it's hard, and people are finding their own communities, slowly homogenising. Even now, 'democrat' and 'republican' are flung around as insults by people who don't know what it's like to be moderate any more. I've got this fear that the economic powerhouse of the world is going to lose touch with reality, and I know some very nice Americans so I'd like their country to not have anything bad happen to it.

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  11. I guess I just don't understand. I go to Walmart to pick up the stuff I need, not have some deeply emotional personal contact. I get that from the people I choose to interact with, certainly not some shopkeep -- corporately trained or family owned.

    Also, I find this rather contrary to your recent "Geek Culture" essay.

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  12. Have you ever had a friend that you didn't expect to become friends with?

    That's, essentially, what this is about. If you never have, that's what I was complaining about - that people aren't really having much contact with others that don't think like them. It is, incidentally, the same problem I have with Cory Doctorow.

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  13. As I think about America, I have to wonder what one expects? It's a big place filled with lots of people. America offers folks what they want, and then some. In Oregon, or Washington, you can, if you want, open a kite shop on the coast and live a quaint life of poverty, and people romanticize it. It's easy to see the environmental pleasure that comes from living on a coastline, but certainly not everyone could do that, or you'd have a mess worse than Shanghai.

    But what's in the midwest but large expanses of land? Open, boring space. What springs up there is what is put there. There are places for ball fields, and town squares, and parks, but there are also suburbs and city office space, and strip malls, with plenty of parking. Whenever I hear Danc characterize middle America by "strip malls" and evil corporate suits who are uncaring about the emotional impact they have upon others, I just roll my eyes.

    Sure there's a profit motive, but the acquisition of profit is a neutral pursuit, and generalizations like the above rant, are, imo, short sighted.

    Some strip malls are quite nice. But not all the shops in said establishment will succeed, nor should they, imo, be forced to have a Starbucks, or a Potterybarn to make them more emotionally satisfying. They should be allowed to exist for the sake of the community they serve. The best solution, imo, is when the community decides where best to meet its spiritual needs. If a community is unsatisfactory to you, then employ democracy, capitalism, and persuasion to change it.

    You're right, though, much of capitalism is about survival. If you want to survive, you either provide for all your needs on your own, or you provide a service to others, so that you can purchase or exchange what you need to survive.

    Many of the videogame/internet generation are just beginning to concede this point, when their mom says, "Get out of the basement and get a job. Turn off that D*MN Xbox! Go get a girlfriend, and turn off the dirty pictures!"

    In this regard, I suppose Walmart is to be lauded, for it provides a place of employment for many of these fellows who would do nothing more than consume, otherwise...

    --Ray

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  14. I guess my point is, Ray, that the acquisition of profit is not a neutral pursuit. We like to think of it as such as pure, mathematical and the same everywhere. But it isn't. Our capitalist creations reflect our cultural values.

    There are lots of capitalist countries out there in the world. Very few of them have the equivalent of Walmarts and strip malls as a defining community element. Their culture, history, geography and other factors had a major impact on this "neutral pursuit"

    I make a point of travelling to other countries once at least once a year. I'm still learning, but I'm always surprised at how happy people are with their closely knit families, strong cultural traditions and belief in the importance of community. And I'm impressed.

    American's honestly, don't seem as happy. The International Labor Organization just released a report on socio-economic security that had this little tidbit:
    "The most important determinant of national happiness is not income level – there is a positive association but rising income seems to have little effect as wealthy countries grow wealthier. The most important factor is the extent of income security, measured in terms of income protection and a low degree of income inequality."

    In this report, America ranks 25th out of 90 nations. In another survey of 'life satisfation' America ranks 17th out of 90 nations. Better than some, worse than a lot.

    What I take away from this is that there are alternative culture systems that better focus on natural needs of people. The result can be an increase the overall happiness of a community.

    Ray has a good point...America ia big place. There are really a half dozen different cultures (at least) in this land we call America. I shiver at the thought of comparing the culture of Maine with that of Georgia. Or California with that of Wyoming.

    Different places, different people, different choices.

    Which brings me back to my original point. The stripmalls of the midwest are an abomination wrought of misplaced optimization. There are different ways of serving goods that better serve our human needs. If you appeal to the broader spectrum of human needs, you will be rewarded. The needs are still there, below the self reenforcing facade of cultural acceptance.

    take care
    Danc.

    PS: Oddly enough this is very similar to the argument I made about the game industry. You see the same self-reinforcing optimization feedback cycle driven by the cultural values of the market. You see the same situation of ignored needs and great market success to the rebels to think outside the box and serve those ignored needs. Oh yes, Starbucks = The Sims. ;-)

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  15. I disagree. It may be an abomination to you, but to those who shop there, and work there, and invested in it, it may be something to be proud of.

    You diss KwikieLube, but Kwikielube serves a purpose. Your comparison of Starbucks to Kwikielube is heavyhanded and unfair. It'd be like throwing away a house, because you can't eat in the toilet. Sorry... That's not what a toilet is used for, but I'd never buy a house without one.

    So some stripmalls seem a bit too utilitarian for your highminded liberal artistic idealism, but not everyone needs guilded gascaps on their chic VW bug in order to service their simple utilitarian vehicle (SUV?!) ;) ...

    What often makes a stripmall a hell, is the very reason it was created. It's popularity. The more folks use it, the more crowded and streamlined the place may become, less personal, more convenient.

    But we all trade convenience here, for Spiritualism somewhere else. Personally I don't have a problem with folks who wish to compartmentalize parts of their life, for intense and fulfilling episodes of spirituality, recreation, or culture at other times.

    If the midwest were nothing but stripmalls, I'd agree with you, but you're ignoring the benefits for the sake of argument.

    And as for happiness, I agree with you. If a person puts his faith in a stripmall as the source of his happiness, then he's bound to be disappointed. But then, I also think that putting your faith in Starbucks is equally misguided. Happiness comes not from the material, but from the spiritual world. It comes from living right, from service and sacrifice.

    The pursuit of profit does not bring happiness, but nor does it bring misery. It is how you apply it. The pursuit of profit for the sake of doing good brings great happiness.

    Just recently I was able to send a sizable donation to a single mother working her way through nursing school because I had a little to spare and was following a spiritual impression that she was in need. It came the week that she had bill collectors banging on her door, and she had no idea where she would make ends meet. It made me feel so happy that I could help her, and that it came freely of my own good will and choice made it doubly rewarding. Though my job has often been stressful, and frustrating, and required quite a bit of sacrifice on my part, and to my health and time, it was the means by which I could accomplish something genuinely good... and I was glad of it.

    Middle America may be making a lot of money, but it is also the source of the largest charitable donations and the most giving the world has ever seen. No other nation gives so much of itself based upon ideals.

    Is it flawless, could it stand a few extra coats of glossy rainbow colored paint, and nicer, newer, more caring shopping carts?

    Probably... but all in due time.

    Eventually that eyesore state-controlled liquor store will be replaced with a roller rink for disabled children. It just takes enough fellow citizens with enough organization and caring about their community to make a difference. Telling them they live in a slum and a dump is not helpful. Providing a paintbrush or picking up the trash in front of your yard, does.

    --Ray

    PS> I think in many respects we're almost in agreement. So you over that cold yet?

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  16. I don't mean to hijack this thread, but I take issue with Raymond's assertion that "No other nation gives so much of itself based upon ideals." It simply isn't true. America is nowhere near the top of per-capita donations to charity in either the public or private sectors.

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  17. When I think about stripmalls and corporate chain-store culture I often start to think about evolution and survival of the fittest. Currently there are a lot of the same stores across the country. If you ever get a chance to read Travels With Charlie by John Steinbeck, you'll begin to get a sense that this was not always the case. It's a surprising fact that at the time of this nation's conception, people felt more a pert of their states than the nation. First Pennsylvanian or New Yorker or what have you, and Then American. Not so any more.

    You can say that this utilitarian culture is sufficient, and in some senses it is elitist to find so much fault in something that essentially does what it's meant to. However, 99% of America today has little or no concept of the local culture that was once so pivotal to our identities. The reason I mention Darwin is because he posited that diversity is necessary for survival. In a not so surprising coincidence, it is also necessary for culture. If you're okay with cookie cutter existence, then I guess that's your decision. I for one am rather frightened of the degree of homoginization.

    Not just the midwest. Not just the urban centers. I recently moved from outside of Philadelphia to Southern Arizona (Tucson), and it's kind of amazing how easily I could get by shopping only at stores that exist only in both places. It's not about wanting more gloss. It's about wanting community and diversity. I want to be able to point to where I live and have a reason to say it's home other than the fact that the fact that I live there.

    For a large part, the problem is in the hands of the consumer. If you don't really care whether you shop at walmart versus a local market, than walmart will survive and the market won't. It is true that local shops often are less shiny and may have less selection. Starbucks coffee tastes a lot better than coffee at your average local diner. Is this an okay trade off? Nothing is ideal. I think the reason we have strip malls however, is because our general mentality fits it very well. Who has time to go to a local bakery, open air market, and farm stand just to do the shopping?

    This is not an affront to the American Way. This is not an attack on a way of life. It is just a series of questions: how did we get to where we are? If we take a long hard look, do we like what we see? Could it be better? Is the national identity we now (generally) subscribe to better than local flavor? Grime and individuality or gloss and anonymnity? Cheap and corporate or expensive and local?

    But about diversity... If only starbucks exists, then there is no room for improvement. The only changes are sweeping replacements of Arby's with McDonalds or Borders with Barns and Nobles. There is no spectrum. Where is the room for small business to grow? Once Walmart is the only store in a small town, no one will shop anywhere else. No innovation outside of the company walls. It's not how happy we are compared to others. It's how happy could we be compared to how depressed we are now.
    -e

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  18. P.S. Sorry for such a long post...

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  19. Well written. That's why I left the suburbs, and that's why I doubt I shall ever return.

    What I find kind of funny/ironic is that you seem to have such a humanistic view of what you want out of contemporary life in America, yet your writings on game design and the principle themes you go back to are somewhat in contradiction with your humanism. On one hand you say that capitalism and commercialism have ruined our quality of life and experience, yet you advocate the expansion of games into new markets and your primary motivation for innovating/changing game design is to make more money, or at least tap new markets that have the potential to make you more money.

    As an artist/designer, I can understand the conflict; it's one that I wrestle with every day. But at the end of the day, I almost always resolve that my freedom to express myself and do as I please is more important than my desire to live luxuriously or become known/famous.

    So what I pose to you is this: If you value community and life/experiential quality over convenience/profits or whatever from a socioeconomic standpoint, do you not also value quality in the gaming experience over growth/profits? You have repeatedly suggested the idea of a shopping simulation game or something that reaches out to non-gamers, but really, 1: would people who like games have fun playing such a game? and 2: would you, or maybe not you, but other developers enjoy making that game?

    It's true: developers make the kind of games they want to play, and while what they want to play may only be a variation on what they've already played, perhaps they make these games not out of a drive for profits and fame but out of a love for the games that they know and play. For some people, like myself, game development is just a hobby. I'd like to earn a living at it, but I also fear mixing my play with my work; I fear that once games become more about money than they are about fun, my experience both making and playing them will be ruined, or at least hurt.

    Just something to think about. First time poster, but I've been reading for a while. You run a top notch site here.

    --RM3K

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  20. Good point RM3K,

    I'm a bit on the liberal side of business world. I make art software for the most part and have realized that capitalism, humanism and passion are highly complementary if you pick the right projects.

    It is really an old story..."Make money by doing what you love"

    I focus primarily on the business side of things in this blog because we have an over abundance of passion in our industry without a lot of thought behind the 'why' of it all. EA has little kids banging down their door, begging to be used in the production grinder. That's passion.

    But I'd prefer that passion be informed by in depth knowledge of what is possible. Ideally the message is this: "Here are some of the drivers behind the game industry. You are a smart person with tons of passion. Now use these mechanical business tools to makes something great"

    Passion without knowledge is no better than being a lemming. Passion with critical business, game design, and artistic skills is a powerful creative force.

    take care
    Danc.

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  21. I dig the post.

    How many times have I driven down the beltline back home to see large commercial development after large commercial development and thought "This is not the way we were suppose to be." Often I have also wondered just how far down in this parking lot is the ground. How many layers of asphalt and concrete have been poured here?

    I am in college and basically your average layman, so if this post comes off as a little less "heady" than Danc's or Ray's then so be it. We work with what God gave us.

    It seems as though you want a world in which you can buy Charmin and a box of Cheerios from Mom and Pop. Maybe have a nice conversation about how their son is doing in school in an environment that is populated with intelligent conversation and enough people, but not too many. I don't see the point? It's as if we have moved to romanticizing Mayberry. We demand bigger and cheaper, but we still want the personal. Have we become so disconnected with life that we long for meaningful interactions while buying a new TV?

    It's true that when I walk into Wal-Mart I am a dollar sign to the largest business in the world, but I'm not there for personal interaction with the clerks. I'm there for my Charmin and box of Cheerios. If I want social interaction than I can go to my Church, hiking, climbing, rafting, to a local Tavern, or Coffee shop (gasp! they still exist even in the Midwest!). Most of the time I just want to get in and get out, and therein may be your point, but when I am gorging myself with materialism I don't really want the clerk at Pier 1 to take an interest in me personally.

    Are Strip Malls and Chain stores an eye-sore? Yes, I believe so.
    Has the local identity disappeared? No, I think not. American High School Football is a prime example of the continuance of the "local identity".

    I just find it hard to sympathize against any form of materialism. We are rich and blessed in America. Even the poorest in the country is among the richest 5% in the world. This isn't an anti-anti-American bash, but I still think we live in a great country. Neither is this a flame.

    Things could be done better, but they are never as bad as they seem.

    Never let materialism define your way of life. There is life after capitalism. Strip malls are really just a way to acquire more stuff, and stuff hardly defines us as a country, 'cause in the end it's just that stuff. Mom and Pop stores again are a way to get more stuff. It just happens to be more aesthetically pleasing.

    If the world's economy was to collapse we would find a way to persevere.

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  22. I dunno, Danc.

    Being surrounded by strip malls and turning to multinational corporations in order to live frugally has never stopped me from being happy.

    I might just be the exception... but it seems to me that if a person doesn't know how to be happy, then no amount of "community" is going to teach it to them. If a person thinks that acquisition will make them content, then by all means let them acquire. If a person thinks that community will make them content, then by all means let them move away from the strip malls.

    For myself? I don't think strip malls have anything to do with happiness. It's there for me to get things that I want and need in a convenient and quick fashion, so that I can them use these things in my home, sometimes with other humans, in a way that ultimately sustains my (or our) happiness.

    Could the strip malls be happier places? Yes. However, there are better places to put establishments that serve the need for community... and if you go to these places, I promise you'll find these establishments.

    The strip malls are not the problem. The problem is that people look to the strip malls for a service that strip malls are not built to provide.

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  23. What I find interesting about this discussion has been the tendency to characterize America (or is it just american suburbs?) as homogenous. One of the reasons that so many of these services pop up in America is not due to their homogenous culture, but because it is diverse and in an effort to normalize across varying backgrounds, something that appears "lifeless" or "godless" or "cultureless" or "bland" arises.

    It may very well be that BECAUSE of the mixture of cultural diversity, and maybe even over-sensitivity to diversity, that JiffyLubes appear, or McDonalds reigns supreme. They are services which appeal to one overarching need without becoming too engendered with a cultural or political or controversial bias.

    Ironically, Danc's little ray of hope, Starbucks, is one of the least appealing things in a stripmall for me personally, due to my own cultural/religious biases. I don't drink coffee, and think dependence upon overpriced chemical stimulants raises moral questions. Still, I can appreciate the company's tactics from a business perspective.

    Japan, on the other hand, has been praised quite a bit for the culturally interesting way in which technology and services are melded with charm and other human needs... which I agree with, however, to raise one point of reason, there are few cultures in the world more homogenous (or LESS DIVERSE) than Japan.

    Even the article Danc pointed me toward, demonstrated this... in that Japanese people tend to find happiness in different veins... (subservience, cooperation, doing directed tasks well, doing an honorable job on something for a collective, whereas the Americans in those liberal-minded studies of happiness tended to indicate that happiness came by way of individualism, independence, being in charge, self-reliance, etc...)

    By show of hands, who here is even married, raising kids, and living in a house in the suburbs?

    When you're doing your darndest to prove to the world that you're a grown-up, it is natural to look at the suburbs with an upturned nose and say, "I'll never go back."

    But some of these things exist for wise purposes. Rather than thumb your nose at them, a wise man might reserve judgement for the day when he/she has a family to care for... children to nurture and ensure a decent education, a stable home life, and freedom from destructive distractions that might render them cripples (or diseased) before they have the wisdom to bridle all their passions.

    So while there may not be fine art on the walls of the local McDonald's Playplace, I have some mighty nice crayon drawings attached to my refrigerator with letter shaped magnets. And you know what, I cherish that more than I would any Picasso...

    Best regards,

    --Ray

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  24. Danc - Sorry for the brief response, I am still at work - (trying to get Americans to pick up & try a original, unique PSP game -very difficult) and your post (don't consider it a rant!) made me laugh - great piece.

    On a similar vein - you should check out a doco series called "The Century of the Self" - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0432232/ - Very interesting series, highly recommend it.

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  25. Hey Danc,

    What if the great monuments and palaces and gardens of the ancient world, those tourist sites that add character and distinction all started out like this?

    Maybe you should move to Canada, if you don't like the midwest? They're into monument building! :)

    --Ray

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  26. I like the comment about how most of the world doesnt have the supermarkets and the like and would love to have them, this is absolutely true and all however they still have the human connection to one another and the world they live in. I personaly have lived and stayed for extended periods of time in different countries in europe and america and although blegium isnt the poorest country (its far from it) it still wasnt on par with the US or its neighbors. Although there was only a small gorcery store in each town there were still plenty of places and opportunities to hang out, talk, think, have some quiet time, or meet people without a problem. The problem considered in the rant isnt the wealth and the glitz of the places, it doesnt matter if its a super market or a small grocery store as long as its accesible and has some sort of humanity to it, which american supermarkets are lacking.

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  27. How would you make it better while maintaining the profit?

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  28. As usual, I'm getting to a thread now that it's old, but I just watched a great documentary last night called "The End of Suburbia", which touched on a lot of these issues. Mainly, it showed how much the suburban consumer strip-mall model is entirely predicated on cheap fuel, especially oil. Everything from the gas in our cars, to the fuel used to ship our cheap Wal-Mart goods from China, to the energy to heat our oversized homes, to the gas in the truck that ships our McDonalds salad across the continent. We've been riding a cheap fuel bubble for about 70 years or so, but now that we've hit (or are about to hit) the world oil peak, that bubble won't continue. Without cheap fuel, much of our "American Dream in Suburbia" lifestyle won't be sustainable or possible. One of the few upsides to this "crash" will be that it will force us to live more like much of the rest of the world (small communities with local economies).

    Anyway, I don't agree with everything in the film, but it's definitely worth watching.

    - Jeb

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  29. God, I just moved to a large city from the suburbs of a different large city, and what you say feels completely backwards to me. I'm stuck in a sea of 10 million people, taking literally 2 hours to drive 5 miles to pick up my dogs from the kennel that I have to leave them at because of the absurd noise laws in my area. (Your dog barks more than 5 minutes in a 1 hour period and you get fined $1000. But your baby can scream all day long, and you can use that tile saw into the wee hours of the night, and you can thump your bloody bass all you want and not a thing will happen to you.)

    I don't really know any of the people in my building, and it doesn't appear that they really want to get to know me. I just visited my old neighbors in the burbs last week. I got to know them because when I walked around my neighborhood (which was free of vagrants), instead of going to the store to pick stuff up, I was interacting with my neighbors. And when I did need to go to the store, I could get there and back in under 30 minutes, so I could get back to interacting with my neighbors. And the stores could afford enough space to carry all the items I needed, so I didn't have to leave empty handed or go to yet another store for one more item. And when I looked out over the landscape, there wasn't an orange haze of smog covering it.

    Yeah, the strip malls were ugly, but definitely no worse than the ugly run-down (often empty) buildings in the city. My house was large enough to feel comfortable in, not cramped and close to everyone else's like my apartment. And hey, if I wanted to see something cultural, I could take the time to drive or take the train downtown and see it. But I didn't have to be stuck with all the problems of the city when I wasn't getting any benefit from it. There were real quiet spaces and green spaces.

    To each his own, I guess.

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