Sketching the Invisible Hand

Serious inspiration can come from folding clothes and computer games. This is often overlooked in creative endeavours; very little is actually new, it’s all re-imaginings or applying old things in new and different ways. To be able to create this kind of Hegelian synthesis (which, finally, I have a real honest to god term for the kind of creativity I do) requires taking in massive amounts of data from a huge diversity of sources.

Or put another way, no, looking at can really be research. Of course, so can folding clothes.

My household has a situation similar to too many USAians: We have too many clothes. We can identify what each set of clothing is for, why we don’t want to part with it. Sentimental reasons, social norms, seasonal changes and job requirements all meet in an unholy fusion of accumulations of styled fabric. Not to mention things like shirt.woot‘s shirt collection, my own personal weaknesses. But largely, it’s because accumulation is so strongly linked to doing well in our social (and perhaps even biological) consciousness.

Regardless of the reason, we have been able to accumulate – and until now, deal with – these clothes because we’ve passed the buck on them. The real costs of creating the clothes has been shifted to lower and lower paid workers, as has the quality of the materials. (Regardless of the price you pay in the store – that’s a different matter than the cost of making the clothes.) While this leads to a down-the-line problem and a bottom limit to economic accumulation, it illustrates the ongoing USAian problem with having “too much stuff” and having to invent storage solutions for all the stuff we accumulate.

And that’s where computer games and internet trends come in.

Most 4x games (Civilization, Starships Unlimited, et al) have maintenance costs. As you develop all the cool stuff – and build it – you have to pay an annual cost in money. That cost isn’t readily seen in the USA, because most of us can’t pay for it. We can’t afford maids, butlers, personal asisstants, and the like. The market has tried various ways of making that possible (Maids-R-Us), but as Nickled and Dimed points out, the wage floor there is practically already reached.

Most of us, though, end up having to pay in terms of time and sweat equity. It’s an opportunity cost – and we have reached the point where the opportunity cost has become too great. Hence the simplicity movement. Its roots can be seen in the executive arena, with all the productivity trainers – but GTD (along with some prominent internet adherents) broke through to a wider group of people. People who weren’t executives. Now I hear my wife talking about some of Flylady’s tips – which in many ways are similar to David Allen’s principles, but reworked for a non-executive market. This meme continues to take over our national consciousness, expressed in an appreciation for well made and useful things and reducing the stuff in our life.

These expressions are largely being driven by our inability to pay the opportunity cost of taking care of all this stuff. Maintenance is BORING; eventually one has to either submit to it or reduce it. And so we are.

The reason this is so fascinating? Though you might quibble with my timeline, the amount of information out there allows us – perhaps for the first time – to see the individual actions that make up the “free hand” of the market. Sketched out – in very rough detail – is one aspect of the market working. Hopefully, this illustration allows us to both understand how the aggregate of individual actions can become market forces – while retaining the realization that all things we do, from folding the laundry to playing video games to protesting Wal*Mart – are legitimately part of the market’s invisible hand.

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