Big business bites consumer choice

By Rhia Perkins

It seems these days everything is headed by big corporations who have, to lesser or greater degrees, effective monopolies over consumers. From close-to-home examples like the takeover of McQ’s by the Students’ Union or the Pepsi exclusivity deal, to the ubiquitous presence of Microsoft in the computing world, the day of the small businessman and consumer choice is unquestionably over.

The problem with the homogeneity presented to consumers today is that there is little commercial incentive for producers of goods and services to ensure they are fulfilling our needs. Microsoft–lawsuits and Hollywood notwithstanding–is a perfect example. Programmers on their Silicon Valley treadmills spent most of the last five years pumping out version after version of the Windows operating system. Great! Progress, after all, is the driving force of our North American society, right? Well, sure, but wouldn’t you prefer that progress actually took us somewhere? How many people can sit in front of a computer and tell the difference between Windows 95, 98, NT or 2000? Not many. I work with computers on a daily basis and have to dig a bit before I can tell. Amusingly enough, each new version of this software seems to incorporate more bugs than the one before it. In Mr. Gates’ race to create more and more products, he seems to have left many critical testing procedures by the wayside, users be damned.

The trend is visible in many other big businesses in North America–high-profile coffee shops that spring up out of nowhere, closing down favourite little cafés and hangouts wherever they go, retail superstores edging out quirky little stores downtown and in Kensington and the increasing preponderance of high-class, yuppified apartment buildings–and the consequences are bound to be disturbing to every self-respecting individualist. The future–and we’re talking the near future here, something on the order of a decade–is starting to look like that spooky kind of science fiction novel where the big-brotheresque, super-corporation runs anything and everything. One place to buy groceries, one for your coffee, one for your gas, one for your Internet, your news, your entertainment, your relationships, your family and your future. The bigger the corporate machine, the more they can sell you. Is this where you want to be going? I sure don’t.

It’s hard though, as an individual, to make a dent in this high-scale corporate mechanism–Microsoft is almost unavoidable if you want to stay PC, and you might have to walk blocks to get coffee somewhere that’s not from a franchise. The effort required to frequent smaller businesses is often well worth it, but the key, I think, is to keep in mind the fact that you pay their salaries with your consumption and that you, the consumer, can demand their service meet your needs and desires. Whether this will keep Big Brother at bay, or just make him more sympathetic, remains to be seen.