Contemplation: Pseudovariety and Globalization

The idea of pseudovariety (“the illusion of diversity, concealing a lack of real choice” ~ Steve Hannaford) is presented to me initially by a fascinating info graphic displaying the separation of soft drink industry ownership via this Kottke piece.  It is not entirely new information to me that three companies (Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper/Snapple) control 89% of the soft drink market, however seeing it visualized in all the vastness of various brands and flavors and put into the mill of pseudovariety thinking, it takes a new kind of meaning.  I suspect that pseudovariety plays a particularly important role in the globalization in that the “illusion of diversity” allows for industries to essentially spread to all manners of societies in acceptable ways, regardless of where the actual ownership lies.

Now let’s be clear, pseudovariety is certainly not limited to just the soft drink market.  Consider the Disney Company, consider sporting goods companies like Nike and Adidas, even consider internet giants like Google and Facebook.  Pseudovariety is prevalent in almost any commercial industry that you can think of.  Some are more obvious in regards to who the holding ownership lies with (Apple is a great example, in that it markets a wide variety of products, but all of them are very obviously a part of the overall Apple brand) while others (especially like the beverage companies above) are harder to determine or often all around unrealised.

Is all this pseudovariety a bad thing?  I suppose it would depend upon whom you ask.  You ask a shareholder or CEO of one of these companies and likely you will get a response detailing matters of global supply and demand and the need to keep a competitive edge in developing markets.  However, if you consider a consumer perspective there can be seen some very negative aspects, especially when there are not alternative products to a certain market.  In some ways the pseudovariety approach of many large, often multinational, corporations is bordering on creating sub-monopolies.  It becomes deceptive in that it provides the illusion of consumer choice, however the revenues from several seemingly separate entities essentially serve the cause of one primary owner company.

What this means, is that if a conscientious consumer takes issue with some practice of a company like Coca-Cola, it is not enough for that consumer to just say “I’m not going to drink Coke classic anymore to boycott Coca-Cola.” (Not that a single boycott has probably ever worried Coca-Cola before).  Really to cut an individuals cash flow from profiting Coca-Cola would require the refusal to purchase any of the flavor varieties of all 25 beverage brands that are owned by Coca-Cola and considering the wide range of products this includes there is suddenly a very daunting task.  Now consider that you want to boycott soda as a whole (as it is arguably a contributor in some degree to the general obesity epidemic in the US).  There are essentially 63 separate brands that you now need to avoid as they are all owned by those main three beverage companies mentioned above.  And while boycotting is not the sole issue, that fact that money spent on one product can essentially be used to support other products does create a certain type of deception.

Now I am sure that there may be other people who are neither shareholders or big company CEOs who really don’t take issue with this pseudovariety, by pointing out that this is, in essence, how capitalism works (to some degree I even see the logic and point in this).  But I still side towards a cautionary approach.  How do we assure that there not abuses being committed by the primary holding companies with vast pseudovariety and global spread?  it is easy to believe that there is a type of metademocracy in the way in which consumers purchase, but when it is only really a few major companies that hold the vast majority of varieties, then we essentially face a system much like American politics (two parties, and almost all the power).  Real choice is the illusion at this point.

Over at the OrangeCoat blog Bear has written these week about a conversation he had with Elizabeth Ramos in regards to the rise of interest in craft goods.   It is a good little blog post and offers some thoughts on a definite rising trend in craft made goods.  I’d expand upon Bear and Elizabeth’s perspective in saying that perhaps part of the whole craft revival is a refutation to pseudovariety.  With craft goods the consumer is very intimately connected and aware of the products source and to whom the revenue is going.  Furthermore, multiple individuals may create similar types of craft products, but each creator is a single entity serving his or her own cause.  In this way craft good create actual variety without any illusory aspect.  I think that there is a definite movement among many Americans that values this real variety over the mass marketed pseudovarieties.

Of course a return to true variety in a world with such vast and prevalent pseudovariety may be a bit of a pipe dream.  For one thing, the larger corporations with all the pseudovariety can often offers their goods for much less cost than those that a craft made.  Also a large companies overwhelming revenue stream allows for their globalization aims whereas an individual craft person or company has a much more limited reach (which can actually be a good thing for craft goods in some regards, as it provides more opportunities for various individuals to create like craft goods in different regions).  And awareness alone can be a limiting factor.  Pseudovariety can be very convincing, and the lack of knowledge of true variety alternative may mean that many of us continue to be intimately involved in the support of larger corporate entities.

Anyway, if you are a Greenville resident (or live nearby) and want to get away from the daily grind and consumption of pseudo variety, you can certainly choose to make an appearance that the Indie Craft Parade mentioned in Bear’s post this Friday and Saturday.  heck, it is a small effort but I am betting you’ll see some good ol’ home grown variety there.

~ by Nathaniel on September 8, 2010.

2 Responses to “Contemplation: Pseudovariety and Globalization”

  1. What, I may ask, is the “true variety” to which the world can supposedly return? A couple generations ago you picked from the few (probably relatively locally made) options carried by the few (or lone) local vendor. The options each of beers, beverages, shoes, clothes, etc, could probably counted on a single hand. The closest any non-city dweller probably came to “true-variety” didn’t appear until they received their first Sears catalog.

    I would argue that this “true variety” never existed. However, this craft movement can now grow in refutation of “pseudovariety” because of extremely advanced, flexible, and heavily-concentrated distribution systems… all made possible by the economics of scale provided by mass production. People are embracing craft because the impersonal, story-less world of mass production has provided them with sufficient wealth to be able to throw money at warm feelings.

    • I think that the true variety did exist a couple generations ago, but that it lacked this “advanced, flexible, and heavily-concentrated distribution system.” Just because people were not as widely exposed does not mean that the variety was non-existent. But I think you are right, our modern spread and ability to distribute goods to all corners of the Earth does provide an opportunity to refute the mass marketed pseudovariety. And certainly, yes, we should credit that it was mass production that allowed for these opportunities in the first place, however, now that the world is at the point which it is at, the question can be “is mass production really the best way, or are there alternatives we’d like to consider?”

      Thanks for the comment.

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