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
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.
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
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
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
The question doesn't care about good times or bad. It keeps
coming at you.
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
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
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
Consumption is so much a part of who we believe we are that we
can't control ourselves, even when pursuing it threatens our
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
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
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?
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