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  • Desire's Design

    Question: What do you want?
    Answer: I don't know.

    The dilemma of humanity encapsulated in a single Q-and-A. We don't know what we want. We don't know how to want. We don't know ourselves.

    Q: What do you want?
    A: I don't know.

    Among adults, the exchange is like something out of a Samuel Beckett play. The question is asked again and again; the answer, always the same.

    Q: What do you want?
    A: I don't know.

    I ask my kids a variation of this question a dozen times a day. What do you want to do? I don't know. What do you want to eat? I don't know. Where do you want to go? Who do you want to see? What is it that you want? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. 

    If you don't know, who knows?

    If you don't want, who wants?

    Desire is not simple, pure, singular, uniform among all people, homogenous within all minds. It's not a candy-bar emotion dispensed by the vending machine of the brain. If it were, if our desires were of the same nature and intensity, allowing for variation in the objects of our desire, then we would be acting on our desires exactly the same way, every person every day engaged with the same enthusiasm, drive, and energy in activities as various as boxing and sweeping the sidewalk, cutting hair and driving a race car, pole-vaulting and pumping gas; it would be a nightmarish world of automatons.

    Instead, desire (as opposed to whim, caprice, lust or appetite) can be understood as analogous to the clay of your identity, the seed of your personality. Or maybe not so literal or objective as clay or seed. Maybe something more ephemeral, insubstantial, subjective: a whisper, a shadow, a glimmer.

    Acting on desire is more like a craft, a science, an art. It takes careful, mindful practice. Be patient and quiet. Listen, observe, take notes. Figure out what you want, privately, and then choose to want it, publicly. Put your desire out in the open. I want to go swimming. I want to bake bread. I want to paint a picture. I want to build a chair. I want to write a book. You act, and then you fail. Over and over. And it's better to start failing when you're young, when all you lose is an ice-cream cone or a baseball game or an afternoon of fun. When you're older, the stakes are higher. If adults don't know how to want, then they lose a love, a career, a life.

    Supermarket seizure (photo: unaesthetic)

    This is not an exercise in abstraction. People break down over this. They lose it. They go nuts. After her divorce, a woman goes shopping, a salesclerk asks her if there's anything she wants, and suddenly the woman weeps in the cereal aisle. People avoid high-school reunions because they don't want to admit they still don't know what they're doing. A guy retires and hangs around the house in a fog because he can't for the life of him remember what he retired for. In my home state of Michigan, unemployment is at 7.2 percent. A wartime recession tends to make folks moody and introspective. They wonder what the hell they're going to do.

    Q: What do you want?
    A: I don't know.

    The question doesn't care about good times or bad. It keeps coming at you.

    Q: What do you want?
    A: I don't know.

    The exchange might describe the dilemma of any representative hominid over the last 13,000 years of our self-conscious existence. We have our primitive needs, yes—our needs for food, shelter, clothing, kinship, affection. But we are not hunter-gatherers anymore. We are not farmers in a feudal system. We are consumer–traders. Yet when our survival is no longer at stake, we still balk at defining our desires and, instead, substitute our primitive needs, the fulfillments of which are no longer primitive, no longer basic, no longer about survival. What do you want? I don't know, but how about weapons and wealth, conquest and concubines, slaves and sugar? I don't know, but how about a hamburger and a hydrogen bomb, a cool drink and a new frontier? The substitutions are temporary because the need to substitute remains. Why? Because the question has not been answered, only deferred.

    Q: What do you want?
    A: I don't know.

    The deferment of desire drives our consumption of substitutes, our craving for new meals, new movies, new machines. The American belief that there will always be more to consume derives from our frontier history, an economy of endless progress, the value of capital dependent on accelerating consumption. In the past couple hundred years (a simple inhalation of breath as measured by the lungs of time), U.S. progress depended on the bounty of North America's resources: land, fur, bison, tobacco, cotton, lumber, coal, corn, cattle, oil, steel, gas, lakes and rivers. The waves of our progress swept up Native Americans and slaves and deposited railroads and cities. And now, of course, we enjoy a globally interconnected economy of services and information, technology and finance.

    Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of U.S. GDP. The U.S. economy depends on consumption, and we do a great deal of consuming while sitting on our lazy butts. There are 300 million of us, and we now spend as much money in restaurants as we do in grocery stores. We spend over $500 million on online-dating services and personal ads, $13 billion on internet pornography, $16 billion on video games, $43 billion on movies and $175 billion on online shopping. We like to consume so much that we overextend ourselves. U.S. credit-card debt is $790 billion (U.S. federal debt is $9.4 trillion)—and while we're shopping online, we're losing our homes. The nation had foreclosure filings on 223,651 properties during the month of February 2008, a nearly 60 percent increase from February 2007.

    Consumption is so much a part of who we believe we are that we can't control ourselves, even when pursuing it threatens our survival.

    Q: What do you want?
    A: I don't know.

    This will do. That's what Kenya Hara says in his 2007 monograph, Designing Design. “We want to give customers the kind of satisfaction that comes out as, 'This will do,' not, 'This is what I want.' It's not appetite, but acceptance.” He's talking about his design work for MUJI, and he explains that he designs with the recognition that Japan is a mature economy of limited resources. Japan is still a consumer economy, but as an island, as an advanced culture, it does not subscribe to the myth of the unlimited frontier. They have to design wisely, generate value globally and consume reasonably.

    MUJI store in midtown Tokyo.

    On the big island of North America, we're using up a lot of stuff. We're making a mess. We know it, and we've given our guilt a color: green.

    We are aware, more than ever, of the consequences of our habits of consumption. We are mindful of our natural resources, of the scale of our appetite and our mess, of the cycle of our use, from oil spill to landfill. As a culture and an economy, we are, finally, asking ourselves the question, point blank.

    Q: What do you want?

    And because we haven't quite defined the terms yet, we produce the same answer: I don't know.

    A mature economy, seeing the desert of a wasteland on the horizon, is forced to restore proportion to rates of consumption. People calm down, accept limits and say, “This will do.” But do for what? For the stuff we need, for the energy we use, for establishing the latest threshold of what passes for “survival” within our class. For satisfying our cravings for aesthetics and function, pleasure and appreciation. For satisfying our need to communicate and connect. Yes. And then what? What about our consumption is indeed sufficient to… do what again, exactly?

    To do what you want to do. To pursue your desire. The clay, the seed, the glimmer.

    Please survive. And enjoy. Luxuriate even. (Says the mature economy.) Do not deprive yourself, sacrifice your liberty or attack your way of life. Ask, instead, a much, much harder question. Get to the heart of the matter. Confront humanity's age-old dilemma. Ask the question planted within our primitive consciousness, the one each of us must ask of ourselves and answer with the remainders of our lives.

    Q: What do you want?
    A:

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