Enabling vs. Marketing: problem solving in a modern world

 This article is about how to solve problems, and the way that it has changed in the past century. Once upon a time, when you had a problem like a leaky basement or a runny nose you would invent your own solution based on experience, advice, and your own ingenuity. Now there's a product or service you can buy that fixes both problems. At one time people expected to solve their own problems--by themselves or with the community--and on the other we now expect a vendor to solve our problems. But it's important to understand that the ecology of products and services do not, paradoxically, exist to serve you. They exist to use you for the financial gain of the vendor, and they can backfire. Such is the case with nasal spray, which you'll see in a moment. Despite an enormous range of solutions invented and sold in stores today, it is still important that you learn how to enable yourself to solve your own problems.

 Marketing is a multi-step process that begins with identifying a market--also known as "people who have a problem". The next step is to design a product or a service that solves this problem, and the last step is to make the market aware of the product's existence and--if necessary--help them buy it by providing financing. Sometimes the last step, advertising, is confused with the whole, but this would hide the true nature of the things you see advertised and how they came about.

 But there are many downsides with the marketing process as a way to solve problems, and the first is that it creates a system that has goals of its own and needs care and feeding to itself.

A system with a life of its own

 You have a leaky basement, so you go to a big-box hardware store like Home Depot or Lowes. They sell you a bucket of sealant, a jar of etchant to prepare the wall surface with, a plastic spatula and trowel. At home you reconstitute the magic compounds and apply them according to the instructions printed on the side of the containers. You pitch the empty containers into the trash, along with the spatula that chipped and cracked when you were using it. After the next heavy rainfall you go down to the basement to discover a big puddle and a damp wall, right where you'd applied the sealant.

 What went wrong here? It goes back a very long way:
  1. The big-box stores are not hardware stores, they're home improvement stores. They deemphasize tools and raw materials in favor of packaged solutions (although these stores do carry tools, the selection and quality is quite pathetic)
  2. The stores and the products are not designed to enable the consumer to solve problems, but to create profit for the store and the manufacturer. So the tools are made cheaply, are flimsy and don't last for more than a couple of uses
  3. The store's staff aren't trained in problem solving, but problem matching. Problem "Leaky Basement" is matched with solution "Hydraulic Cement"
  4. The product itself is sold separate from the knowledge needed to use it properly. The space on the label is only enough to describe the immediate application of the product, not the causes and theory of leaks and all of the other things you must do (such as cutting down trees with roots that are compromising the integrity of your basement walls)
  5. The product is sold incomplete, and requires skill to reconstitute the compounds to the appropriate concentration. Too little water and the cement hardens before you've had a chance to apply it, too much and the etchant is ineffective at preparing the surface
  The above is part of a system that has emerged over the last century and doesn't just include the home improvement store and the hydraulic cement factory, it's a truly vast mechanism that lives and breathes, consumes resources and excretes waste, just like a living organism.
  • No one company makes the product, its raw ingredients are manufactured by dozens of other firms. Even the maker of the final product outsources its computer maintenance, its call centers, its catering staff, janitors and groundskeepers
  • Construction of the home improvement store was financed by loans from banks, who repackaged and resold the loan obligations as securities
  • The products were transported from thousands of miles away by container ships that guzzle a gallon of fuel to move one foot and are too big to dock at the harbor they make deliveries to
  • They were then carried from the dockyards to the stores by a system of trains and trucks, all operated by private companies
  • The drivers are all unionized, and the union is a system that collects dues and lobbies for protections to their members incomes
  • You probably paid for the products with a credit card, which is a system that charges interest and fees
  • The credit card came with a rewards program, which is run by a separate company that tracks your spending and maintains a network of companies to provide air-miles and consumer goods to spend your points on
  • When you don't pay your bill, the account is sold to a collections agency who have the right to pursue you for repayment of the debt
  • The empty containers and broken spatula were carried away by a garbage pick-up service run by private companies under contract with the city
 Each and every one of these is a system that creates its own goals (ensure members keep paying dues, that rewards points are collected and spent, etc.), and together they create an even bigger system with hidden goals: collection agencies pay good money for delinquent accounts, so credit card companies make it easier to spend more than you can afford, creating a goal to actually increase delinquencies; derivatives are lucrative financial products, so the banks are encouraged to make riskier loans to get more fodder for the derivatives; the unions aim to get more union members paying more dues, so they lobby for laws, contracts and regulations that decrease efficiency in order to have a higher head-count.

 It reads like a conspiracy theory, but there is no conscious conspiracy. Systems create unexpected behaviors as mindlessly as a few good rainstorms can create the Grand Canyon.

The problem in the solution

 I digressed on the system and sub-systems and sub-sub-systems so I could talk about the product itself, sitting on the shelf and looking appealing and affordable and innocent, and why it takes the shape and form that it does. Its form and its true purpose is deeply connected with the system that made it. 

 This time you have a runny nose and you want it to Just Go Away. You buy the bottle of nasal spray and stand there in front of the bathroom mirror, tipping your head back and taking an experimental sniff. At first it doesn't seem to work right, the liquid drips out of your nose and onto your shirt. You grasp for a tissue to dab it up, and then you try again. A good snort, and you can feel it working already. Its active ingredient is oxymetazoline, which is a topical vasoconstrictor--shrinking bood vessels in your nose on contact, such that the diameter of the airway increases and the excretion of fluid decreases.

 It works so well that you continue using it the next day, and the next day, and the next. You wake up in the morning with a stuffy nose and reach for the bottle. Later in the afternoon you feel the stuffiness come back, and you grab the second bottle you bought to keep at work. A week has passed, two weeks, and whenever you go without a snort of nasal spray your nose gets stuffed up. The cold has long since gone, and you now have Rhinitis medicamentosa--the nasal-spray rebound effect. The more you use the spray, the worse your congestion gets.

 But this is a medical condition that results from the overuse of a drug, how is marketing to blame?
  • Instant decongestants only exist because of a marketing process that created a product category and designed a product around a chemical that acts as a topical vasoconstrictor
  • The problem can be solved in better ways; oral decongestants like pseudoephedrine can solve the same problem without the rebound effect, or you could just take time off work to recover
  • Upon discovery of the rebound effect, the makers of the nasal sprays did not withdraw the product from sale or change the formulation
  • To give the product a longer shelf life, it includes an antiseptic called Benzalkonium chloride that irritates the mucous membranes and makes the rebound congestion even worse yet
 The fundamental issue with finding solutions to your problems from store shelves and brochures is that the system and process set up to create these solutions is not in the service of the consumer, but in the service of the producer. The latter stages of marketing--advertising, branding and financing--are even optimized to invent problems that don't exist, make artificial associations to reputations established by unrelated acts, and hide the true cost of the solution.

 Other examples of flawed products abound. Here are just a few.
  1. Home fitness gadgets that are so useless they encourage obesity by giving the purchaser a false sense of personal responsibility without providing an effective exercise
  2. Kitchen gadgets that aren't built to last longer than the trial period--literally designed to live unused at the back of a cupboard or drawer forever
  3. Artificial sweeteners that confuse the body by providing a sweet taste but no resulting increase in body temperature, leading to the body hoarding more energy than you'd have consumed if the food was sweetened with sugar
  4. Gifts for "the man who has everything"
  5. Antibacterial soaps that create a competitor-free environment for Triclosan-resistant bacteria to breed in, and that damage the epithelial layer of the skin so they can invade you faster
  6. Gift cards that lose their value to maintenance fees before the recipient has had a chance to redeem them
  7. Wrist watch shakers--devices that consume household voltage to rock self-winding wristwatches back-and-forth to rewind them
 These and others are examples of a system consumed by its own goals to produce an ever increasing income. The marketing process has given us products that are useless until they're accompanied by a host of complimentary products and services. People will now pay hundreds of dollars for a video game console that needs expensive secondary products and services to make it work. The pure marketing approach to product development has led to brands bankrupt of value, such as the now defunct Sharper Image, Brookstone, and HoMedics. Entire companies with vast catalogs of products that no-one, anywhere, will ever actually need. Products that cannot even survive the first year of use.

 Many products designed and sold today will induce buyer's remorse the second after you've paid for them. The system has compensated for this by, among other things, paying celebrities to use the product and re-assure the buyer that he made the right choice.

Self empowerment - the other route to problem solving

 This isn't meant to become an anti-consumerism rant, but in order to write about problem solving in our time I felt it was important to address the leading, subconscious assumption that we have no responsibility to ourselves and that all we have to do is wait for somebody else to solve our problems for us. The take-away from the above is that the solution is often part of the problem. The obvious alternative is to empower ourselves to solve our own problems our own way (although this, too, has become a target of the marketing process--witness Anthony Robbins). 

 I'll begin with the golden rule of problem solving, one that even forgives our commercial ecology somewhat:

Anything Is Appropriate As Long As You Know What You're Doing

 Even an electric wrist-watch winder is a useful tool, under the right circumstances. What bedevils marketers, and what much of their efforts go to overcome, is the fact that these natural circumstances are too rare to make money from.

 But how do you know what you're doing? The best definition is that one knows what one is doing when one knows what's going to happen. Experience is the key to knowing what's going to happen when you do things like heat up a copper pipe and apply solder to it, or when you wait until the butter stops bubbling before you toss the meat in. These experiences are the primitive shapes that are put together in our heads and enable us to conceive of complete inventions. Nobody can sell you a program for what experiences to have and how to have them, but the most reliable route is to take risks and experiment. Most likely you'll make a mess and hurt yourself, but hopefully not enough to bankrupt or kill you.

 This goes counter to conventional wisdom to "not do anything you see on television," and I feel that it may be another problem of hidden magnitude: nobody can tell anyone to do anything risky without threat of legal retribution. As a writer, I can't tell you to see what happens when you put cold water on hot fat without exposing myself to a personal injury lawsuit, but that knowledge is very useful to have (should you survive it without scars).

 I'm tempted to blame this on the marketing ecology, too. Without doubt, litigation feeds from the trough of companies found at fault for accidental flaws in the products they sell, fueling and oiling a machine with a broadening appetite. The two have led to the attitude that life itself is a product that comes with a warrantee.

 The second rule of problem solving is:

Try to see things differently, so that there isn't a problem anymore

 This is also called re-framing, and while it's easier to say than do, it's always easier to not do something than it is to do something. Am I kidding you? Not at all, because problems themselves are basically nothing more than deviations from expectations, and can be corrected by changing our expectations. Some famous examples:
  1. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund once said "Do I not effectually destroy my enemies, in making them my friends?" (sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln)
  2. German chancellor Otto von Bismarck was deeply opposed to anything that smelled of socialism, until someone pointed out that millions of civil servants were a standing army in disguise


 To learn more about systems and how they fail, I recommend the humorous and easily-read guide to systems large and small, The Systems Bible by John Gall. This article owes much to its research (as well as some of the examples)