The Corporate-owned Commons

Just because a business establishment is owned by a huge, faceless corporation doesn’t mean its physical space is any less inviting than one which is not; doesn’t mean it isn’t run by people just as nice; doesn’t mean it is to be avoided.

If one considers the distribution of publicly accessible indoor space in the United States, I believe one finds the majority of it is corporate-owned. There are only so many transportation centers, limited by security; only so many churches, with limited hours; and only so many smaller business establishments, limited in number and size by government policies that reinforce economies of scale, and of course economies of scale themselves. The number of public club- or meetinghouses (are there still such things?) is probably not significant enough to appear on a graph.

And so if we are to see each other, for sufficient time to speak at all with those unfamiliar with our viewpoints, a corporate-owned business establishment is where we are most likely to do it. And as it currently is, our consumer choices partition us into strange, isolated networks within the same geographic region–those who only go to the independent coffeeshop, the farmers market and the library versus those in the Starbucks, the Wal-mart, and the mega-church. Never the two shall meet, except perhaps in the street.

Any public space can easily be transformed into a forum for polite and casual conversation by one person with the nerve to approach that public space as if it were his/her home, or the home of a close friend; to treat his/her fellow patrons as fellow guests at a party, where the frozen yogurt toppings happen to be plentiful and/or the burritos happen to be made with hormone-free pork; or to imagine them as fellow bargain-hunters at a well-organized yard sale, with an enormous selection of wares made in China.

Even without speaking much or at all, an attitude of being at home and part of the whole group on the turf of an abstract corporate behemoth is an effective counter to many of the invisible mechanisms of control wielded by that behemoth to increase our spending and reliance upon it.

Why should the experience of watching a stranger make you a sub feel so very much different from watching a loved one do the same thing?

Why should the tone of our speech to that stranger be so very different from the tone we use with our friend next to us in line?

As it currently is, our daily economic transactions force the human beings involved into one of just a few rigid roles– I am the shopper; I am the cashier; I am the waiter; I am the one being served. These roles accreted, over less enlightened times, helped along by marketing executives. They preclude interaction among those not designated by the business to interact, and they preclude anyone acting outside of them, much to the detriment of everyone in the public space. In that space, we are no longer ourselves: we are the ones being served, or the ones waiting to be.

We are trained to ignore the fact that other human beings quite similar to ourselves are standing or sitting silently all around us, each with a life so rich with experience it is hard to contemplate. We are trained to ignore that some of them are performing various wonderful deeds for our benefit, thanklessly. Because money will be exchanged, no one is a person; everyone is a pawn; everyone who didn’t walk in the door together is alone.

So, it is in this case just as it is with the cellphone: without claiming any knowledge of a conspiracy to bring about the state of affairs we find our current communication in, let’s assume, for but a moment, that its creation was intentional. What would you then say were the motives of its creator?

Fight the man. By having a nice, long, leisurely conversation with someone you don’t know well, or at all, in line at Chick-fil-a; or in the aisle at Target; or around a few tables in Panera. Where you choose to spend your money is of course a different decision, with different factors.

PS: I forgot about bars! Sorry. I don’t drink.