Today, we will discuss the economics behind "basic". This phenomena was illuminated by what economists call a technological shock, in the form of Internet. Although I'm not sure to what specific market this shock occurred, the invention of a new tool allowed qualities that have existed for a long time to be easily pin-pointed.
What does it mean to be basic? There’s no accepted general definition, but I think of being basic as being unoriginal and uninspired. A basic person draws their tastes, sense of style, and preferences from the boring capitalist norm. It is basic to not think for yourself, to be content as a clueless cog in the machine. It is basic to shape who you are around others’ potential opinions. Most simply, to be basic means to not be your own individual.
If you think some of these descriptors sound like you, never fear. We’re all a little bit basic. The vast majority of people have some (or many) preferences and tendencies derived from groupthink and corporate ad campaigns. Even someone who looks really indie—dressed in health goth or some other clothing trend—can be basic if they are simply imitating others rather than thinking for themselves. Being on-trend doesn’t exclude one from the designation of basic, either. No matter how hip you are, if you act based on others’ designation of what constitutes “cool”, you are being basic.
The key to being less basic is to realize, acknowledge, and even be able to poke fun at yourself when you are being basic. My friend dubbed this phase of basicness as “basic plus”. You are self-aware enough to make fun of yourself, but still like the things you like. This whole description can make it sound like being basic is a negative thing. It isn’t. It’s just a simple fact of life that has been illuminated through some technological changes.
Arriving at Basic
How did we arrive at the point of classifying everyone’s interests as uninteresting or interesting? Why do we demand that everyone has an opinion about everything? What if I don’t want to be my own individual? Isn’t it just so much easier to go along with what others tell me to think?
Yes, of course it’s easier to go along with what others tell you to think. This is what people did for thousands of years. With the explosion of communications, personal preferences also exploded. Like-minded individuals were able to band together and reinforce their views, as they tend to do, and throughout the latter half of the 20th century various counter-culture groups sprang up. When the internet became commonplace, everyone’s crazy opinion and style could be expressed. Suddenly, there were a lot more things that people were expected to know about and keep up to date on.
Pre-technology boom, many people derived their music taste from what was played on the radio. There usually weren’t that many different clothing stores in one’s town, so you wore what was in style at the time. Most people’s attitude on current events, sexuality, political issues, and more came from what their parents, teachers, or the radio told them. There simply wasn’t a ton of room for dissenting opinions. There were many movements that arose throughout the years, but they took far longer to enact change than do movements today. In this rather 1-dimensional (culturally speaking) age, how could you distinguish a basic person from a person who wanted to do things differently, but didn’t have the option to do so? I think it’s entirely possible that many people didn’t even know they would want to have other preferences, as they weren’t exposed to them.
Youth today have access to hundreds of different musical genres and millions of artists just a few keystrokes away. There is an online clothing shop for every niche trend and preference, and for those feeling like an alien in their community, there are forums and platforms for them to connect with likeminded peers. There is copious information available on every political viewpoint, conspiracy theory, and anti-establishment sentiment. In an era so overloaded with information, of course it becomes glaringly obvious when someone doesn’t have any views of their own. (A caveat here: obviously, a person’s belief is their own if it is a belief they have. What I am talking about are preferences and opinions that clearly are something a person was told, didn’t think about, and just accepted.)
Basicness is, Basically, Human Nature
For a long time, no one was expected to think for themself. In fact, people were strongly encouraged to not think for themselves, and to just go along with the norm. Many corporations today would prefer for people to continue not thinking for themselves. The seemingly accusatory phrase “basic” has arisen because in a world with so much information, it is strange for someone to not seek out information, perspectives, and thoughts of their own. That said, the concept of basic merely reflects the composition of humanity.
In order for the large human race to function as it does, there must be a massive amount of people who will work for others their whole lives. There are far fewer individuals who will start ventures or think of ideas of their own. This proportion has risen as the internet gave youth access to all the world’s knowledge (young people are becoming smarter!), but still is absolutely not the majority. Given our world can only function if most people work for others, each individual should absolutely do what makes them happiest during their time alive. If what makes someone happy is a pumpkin-spice latte or yoga pants, who has the right to deprive them of this pleasure?
The Economics of Basic
So where’s the economics in all this? Well, as communications boomed, individuals began to have more intricate personal preferences. Paul Krugman’s theory of trade that won him the Nobel prize in economics dictates that international/multi-national trade brings welfare benefits (not the kind you’re thinking of) to individuals because it gives them more product variety. More freedom to choose = people are better off. The same can be said of the internet.
But, with this expansion of preferences, more people are expected to have a developed set of preferences. Those without developed preferences suddenly became glaringly obvious, hence the rise of the term “basic”. The critical point is that under-developed preferences are still preferences. Accordingly, all individuals should do their best to maximize their own utility—a school of thought very creatively named “utilitarianism”. Utility, as some may recall, is an economic term used to describe overall happiness and wellbeing. This definition takes a long-term view, implying that people maximize their utility when they choose things that will benefit them in the long run.
Want to know more about how the internet created basic? Read Part 2 here.