The Culture of Business

How will we respond to the ever-stronger pushes to envy, to discontent, to growth, to newness, to debt?

December 24 th 2010

How does business, in general, affect our culture? I want to be clear: we're not talking about the Culture Business (movies, music, television, publishing). We're also not talking about how business is portrayed by the culture in movies (Wall Street) and television (Mad Men), which tend toward caricature. I want to consider business's impact on culture, which I believe is substantial and often overlooked.

To prove my point: when one wants to make an observation about culture, it is common to cite a book or a film as emblematic. But how often does one cite a business? You don't often hear people say that our culture is like Proctor & Gamble, though it is probably more like Proctor & Gamble than it is like the latest Coen brothers film.

One of the ways business affects culture is with a seemingly endless supply of tropes: handy expressions that become shorthand for a more complete thought. "Bottom line," "no-brainer," "golden handcuffs," and "value-added" are just a few of the many bite-sized expressions ("bite-sized!") that business has bequeathed culture. But business's impacts run much deeper than glib expression-making.

Business has become adept at using advertising to induce desire, envy, and invidious comparison. We are daily informed of desires we didn't even know we had. We are told that our lifestyle is insufficiently opulent. We are told that other, better-looking people have tried this new product, and it has changed their lives. This is a negative cultural impact because the lesson is always discontent: we should be better looking, more pampered, safer, healthier, and richer than we are. No one that I know of is pushing contentment on prime-time television.

Advertising itself is a cultural artifact; our children (and sometimes our parents) are influenced to like a brand or product based on whether or not its advertising is cool. Some advertising is so influential that it becomes a gravitational force in the culture: think of Apple's legendary "1984" commercial for the original Macintosh.

Related to advertising and desire is business's quest for ever-increasing consumption. This has been the case in the West for a hundred years or more; it is increasingly the case in emerging Asian economies as well. Business is locked into a model that values growth—quarter over quarter, year over year—and looks at stability as tantamount to death. (What would you think of an annual report that stated proudly that customer growth was nil, and that revenues had remained stable [adjusted for inflation] for decades?) Growth requires either new consumers or for current consumers to consume more, and businesses avidly court both goals. But a not-insignificant counterculture (see, for example, the magazine Real Simple) is pushing back against the philosophy of relentless moreness.

Part of the push for ever-increasing consumption is business's cozy familiarity with consumer debt. Businesses that once gave us the quaint and modest idea of "layaway" soon followed with "easy payment plans," and now there are entire industries devoted to the issuance and maintenance of consumer debt (which is mislabeled "credit" the same way that death insurance is mislabeled as life insurance). Christian and secular financial counsellors are unanimous in their agreement that debt is not your friend, no matter how friendly the offer of an even more potent credit card may seem. In the worst cases, usurers prey on the working poor, offering payday loans that purport to help noble workers through a tough spot, but that in reality revolve and accumulate staggering interest, to the great detriment of the debtor. Easy credit may be one of business's worst contributions to Western culture.

In addition to debt, business never fails to push new technology. Most new technologies, though perhaps not invented by business, are invariably popularized by business enterprises. New technologies supposedly come along to make our lives easier or more enjoyable, but this promise is indifferently realized. Many times I have wished, while installing the latest Adobe Flash Player update, for a typewriter and carbon paper—or a quill pen. In reality, business often pursues a strategy of innovation for its own sake, striving to bring something new to a marketplace where "newer" is equated with "better," even when it isn't. Remember New Coke? Technological innovation is somewhat inevitable (see my earlier article "What Hath Lenoir Wrought?"). Hearing from a software company that they will no longer support the product you bought—sorry, licensed from them—three years ago because it is obsolete is—or should be—decidedly more, um, evitable.

Another business contribution to our culture is the tendency—perhaps this is uniquely American—to view all of life in business categories. An example is performance evaluation. While it may be quite reasonable to ask your sales staff how it is doing with respect to its goals, should a non-profit organization, or a college, or a church even have sales goals? Accountability is always a good thing, but the business maxim that "what gets measured gets managed" is far truer than most people realize. And performance metrics are not invariably a good thing, if in the end they distort an institution's mission.

In the comical version of this life-as-business metaphor, parents call a child to the kitchen table to announce that due to poor economic conditions, the child has been laid off. The humour of this absurd scenario underscores the fact that some of the most important aspects of life—like family—do not lend themselves to a business model. One might argue that running a business does not lend itself to the model either, when it involves reckless disregard for the human wreckage of massive layoffs.

Lest this be viewed as just another anti-business rant, it's worth noting that collaboration and diversity are values that business can bring to culture. And though I have written elsewhere that the relentless focus on cost has a dehumanizing effect, it is still true that organizations like WalMart excel at sourcing, shipping, and selling their goods to people at astonishingly low prices. Just as with a good sausage, though, it's best for the squeamish not to ask to see how the trick is done. Yet, as Christians we must be discerning, recognizing the influence business has in our culture and our lives and limiting that influence to its proper place.

Topics: Business Culture
 

David Greusel has worked as an architect for more than thirty years with several Midwestern firms of varying sizes. He is founding principal of Convergence Design, a Kansas City-based practice specializing in places where people gather. While with another firm, he was lead designer for two major league ballparks: Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2009, David was named a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects.

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