Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

Credit: Rory Sutherland

Gandhi would test his resolve by sleeping between two naked virgins, an avenue not really open to me, as my wife is an Anglican vicar: though Anglicanism imposes almost no constraints on your behaviour or beliefs nowadays, it still frowns on sleeping with naked virgins, especially if they are of the opposite sex.

So my equivalent of this exercise is to try to go into certain shops for half an hour and emerge without buying anything. Lakeland is an especially tough challenge here, but the real Matterhorn for me is an airport branch of Dixons. Last time I tried this, I found myself having to resist buying one of the GoPro range of ruggedised cameras -- useful, perhaps, were I a base-jumper or fell-runner, but not so sensible in someone for whom stair-climbing counts as an extreme sport.

'How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles... some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.'

This is a pretty good description of the modern obsession with consumer electronics, all the more remarkable for being written in 1759. The passage appears in Adam Smith's (unfortunately less influential) book The Theory of Moral Sentiments , which many people now consider to be the first major work written in the field of behavioural economics.

Smith also spotted the gadget-lover's tendency towards 'measurebation' -- although he did not call it that. …

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