Have the retailer’s obsession with technology and profit left some of the smaller treasures forgotten?

I was in my neighborhood Barnes and Noble book today and was surprised to see yet another aisle of “Christian Inspiration”. Over the past six months, the selection of Christian literature has expanded from half an aisle on the side of the store to several aisles at the center of the store. Other religions and philosophy have been pushed to the sides. Current events is now sharing a reclusive space shared with gay and minority studies and anthropological material is now squeezed into the end of the history section which is gradually being squeezed to half an aisle by the expanding selection on military history.

This change of selection reflects the demographics of the area, which is predominately white, conservative and Christian. I recognize this being the result of something that we in my profession call business intelligence, which is a product of gathering information about your business such as sales and returns and processing that information so that sound decisions can be made from it. In the case of a bookstore, these decisions include what books to order and how to stock them. Increasing the selection and availability of the Christian inspirational material increases sales potential, while cutting down on anthropological studies decreases the cost of holding books that don’t sell.

On one hand this can be seen as a good thing, where most of the people get what they want and retail operations perform better. This practice is popular across the entire retail industry and affects everything from grocery stores to clothing stores. In fact Wal-Mart, which features a massive information technology center, pioneered something called JIT, “Just-In-Time” inventory. Which allows the actual re-stock of any particular item to be delayed until the just before the moment where the system predicts that the shelf will actually be empty.

But on the other hand I find it rather sad that retail operations are so obsessed with this direction. It’s not just the hard-to-sell items that are being cut out, but something else that goes along with it, the hard-to-find items. Taking a consumers perspective for a change, one will eventually realize that some people are looking for something different and this is something that doesn’t compute in profit obsessed robotics. Some retailers used to be able to subsidize some hard to sell items with the profits from the hot-selling items and sometimes they would even take pride in being the only store in town that carries a specific item or selection.

This situation is in itself was a treasure, usually more common in small business operations, that rely more upon being unique to secure a footing in the market, but most of these small businesses are being destroyed by the sheer size of the conglomerates and sheer size itself becomes the big factor for gaining market share. So back at the bookstore, which happens to be a branch of a huge corporate chain, and the only book store left standing in my neighborhood, the consumer landscape is looking more generic and less interesting. Of course they can still order any book you are looking for but I can do that on the internet. For me, the point of walking into a bookstore is to appreciate the tangible aspects book browsing and to walk out with a book in my hands and for me, the browsing is much better in bookstore with a wide variety of best sellers and obscurities.

I think freedom is a simple concept that nevertheless has convoluted effects on human society. So when people refer to applied freedom as an absolute value, I tend to disagree. I believe the zero-sum theory applies where freedom is relative to those who are unbound and inverse to those who are restricted. In other words, one person’s freedom is another person’s slavery.

So, if you say you’re fighting for freedom then you’re not really saying much because you aren’t specifying who the freedom is for. These half truths permeate society across the world and across history.

In 1835 the British began emancipating slaves in the West Indies and in the Cape Colony. The Dutch (Boers) in Cape Colony disliked it. Here we have a multi-level case where the freedom of black natives were being compromised by the Boers’ freedom to enslave them. This freedom to enslave blacks was itself compromised by the British legislature. The Boers wound up leaving and establishing a new place a little further north were they could continue to enslave the blacks. They called this place the “Orange Free State” because they were free to own slaves.

Another example is the freedom of tyranny as opposed to the limits of democracy. Saddam Hussein had a greater measure of freedom than Bush ever had. The inverse of this freedom was the oppression of the Iraqi people. The U.S. forces in Iraq today can be called champions of freedom because they have destroyed Hussein’s tyranny and unleashed the freedom bottled inside. But it’s still unclear at this point where this loose freedom will actually settle. Will it settle in free-trade, where Western corporations will enjoy the benefits? Will it settle amongst the Shi’a Muslims in a new Iraqi Constitution, or will it settle amongst the insurgents who are still fighting to be free of Western influence?

In yet another example (added 06/09/09) of monochromatic thinking, I remember a discussion with a New Hampshire native about the states motto… “Live Free or Die” (which seems kind of aggressive for a state motto) but he explained that they should just drop the “Live Free” part because of all the Democrats moving in. To him Democrats and their “socialist” inclinations impede freedom. Yet, two minutes later a newsbreak come over the radio saying that the California supreme court overruled the appeal to reverse proposition 8 which says that gay people are not allowed to get married. The New Hampshire man cheered. “I thought you stood for freedom?” I asked. He said “Religious freedom is different.” He didn’t say much after that. I don’t know if he suddenly realized how one-sided he was being or if he just wasn’t interested in discussing it. In any case, it was clear that he supports the religious freedom to tell others what they can and can’t do.

In general, I feel certain that for every person basking in the brilliance of freedom, there is a potential inverse effect for someone we aren’t thinking about or simply don’t care about and when cheering for freedom it would be nice if we had the intellect and consideration to ask who those other people are. As for me, whenever I am approached with a question about freedom, I will always ask… “freedom for who?”