Excerpt: Packaged Pleasures

October 22, 2014
by Gary S. Cross and Robert N. Proctor


“The Carrot and the Candy Bar”

Our topic is a revolution—as significant as anything that has tossed the world over the past two hundred years. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a host of often ignored technologies transformed human sensual experience, changing how we eat, drink, see, hear, and feel in ways we still benefit (and suffer) from today. Modern people learned how to capture and intensify sensuality, to preserve it, and to make it portable, durable, and accessible across great reaches of social class and physical space. Our vulnerability to such a transformation traces back hundreds of thousands of years, but the revolution itself did not take place until the end of the nineteenth century, following a series of technological changes altering our ability to compress, distribute, and commercialize a vast range of pleasures.

Strangely, historians have neglected this transformation. Indeed, behind this astonishing lapse lies a common myth—that there was an age of production that somehow gave rise to an age of consumption, with historians of the former exploring industrial technology, while historians of the latter stress the social and symbolic meaning of goods. This artificial division obscures how technologies of production have transformed what and how we actually consume. Technology does far more than just increase productivity or transform work, as historians of the Industrial Revolution so often emphasize. Industrial technology has also shaped how and how much we eat, what we wear and why, and how and what (and how much!) we hear and see. And myriad other aspects of how we experience daily life—or even how we long for escape from it.

Bound to such transformations is a profound disruption in modern life, a breakdown of the age-old tension between our bodily desires and the scarcity of opportunities for fulfillment. New technologies— from the rolling of cigarettes to the recording of sound—have intensified the gratification of desires but also rendered them far more easily satisfied, often to the point of grotesque excess. An obvious example is the mechanized packaging of highly sugared foods, which began over a century ago and has led to a health and moral crisis today. Lots of media attention has focused on the irresponsibility of the food industry and the rise of recreational and workplace sedentism—but there are other ways to look at this.

It should be obvious that technology has transformed how people eat, especially with regard to the ease and speed with which it is now possible to ingest calories. Roots of such transformations go very deep: the Neolithic revolution ten-plus thousand years ago brought with it new methods of regularizing the growing of food and the world’s first possibility of elite obesity. The packaged pleasure revolution in the nineteenth century, however, made such excess possible for much larger numbers of “consumers”—a word only rarely used prior to that time. Industrial food processors learned how to pack fat, sugar, and salt into concentrated and attractive portions, and to manufacture these cheaply and in packages that could be widely distributed. Foods that were once luxuries thus became seductively commonplace. This is the first thing we need to understand.

We also need to appreciate that responsibility for the excesses of today’s consumers cannot be laid entirely at the doors of modern technology and the corporations that benefit from it. We cannot blame the food industry alone. No one is forced to eat at McDonald’s; people choose Big Macs with fries because they satisfy with convenience and affordability, just as people decide to turn on their iPods rather than listen to nature or go to a concert. But why would we make such a choice—and is it entirely a “free choice”? This brings us to a second crucial point: humans have evolved to seek high-energy foods because in prehistoric conditions of scarcity, eating such foods greatly improved their ancestors’ chances of survival. This has limited, but not entirely eliminated, our capacity to resist these foods when they no longer are scarce. And if we today crave sugar and fat and salt, that is partly because these longings must have once promoted survival, deep in the pre-Paleolithic and Paleolithic. Our taste buds respond gleefully to sugars because we are descended from herbivores and especially frugivores for whom sweet-tasting plants and fruits were neuro-marked as edible and nutritious. Poisonous plants were more often bitter-tasting. Pleasure at least in this sensory sense was often a clue to what might help one survive.

But here again is the rub. Thanks to modern industrialism, high-calorie foods once rare are now cheap and plentiful. Industrial technology has overwhelmed and undercut whatever balance may have existed between the biological needs of humans and natural scarcity. We tend to crave those foods that before modern times were rare; cravings for fat and sugar were no threat to health; indeed, they improved our chances of survival. Now, however, sugar, especially in its refined forms, is plentiful, and as a result makes us fat and otherwise unhealthy. And what is true for sugar is also true for animal fat. In our prehistoric past fat was scarce and valuable, accounting for only 2 to 4 percent of the flesh of deer, rabbits, and birds, and early humans correctly gorged whenever it was available. Today, though, factory-farmed beef can consist of 36 percent fat, and most of us expend practically no energy obtaining it. And still we gorge.

And so the candy bar, a perfect example of the engineered pleasure, wins out over the carrot and even the apple. More sugar and seemingly more varied flavors are packed into the confection than the unprocessed fruit or vegetable. In this sense our craving for a Snickers bar is partly an expression of the chimp in us, insofar as we desire energy-packed foods with maximal sugars and fat. The concentration, the packaging, and the ease of access (including affordability) all make it possible—indeed enticingly easy—to ingest far more than we know is good for us. Our biological desires have become imperfect guides for good behavior: drives born in a world of scarcity do not necessarily lead to health and happiness in a world of plenty.

But food is not the only domain where such tensions operate. Indeed, a broader historical optic reveals tensions in our response to the packaged provisioning of other sensations, and this broader perspective invites us to go beyond our current focus on food, as important as that may be.

As biological creatures we are naturally attracted to certain sights and sounds, even smells and motion, insofar as we have evolved in environments where such sensitivities helped our ancestors prevail over myriad threats to human existence. The body’s perceptual organs are, in a sense, some of our oldest tools, and much of the pleasure we take in bright colors, combinations of particular shapes, and certain kinds of movement must be rooted in prehistoric needs to identify food, threats, or mates from a distance. Today we embrace the recreational counterparts, filling our domestic spaces with visual ornaments, fixed or in motion, reminding ourselves of landscapes, colors, or shapes that provoke recall or simulate absent or even impossible worlds.

What has changed, in other words, is our access to once-rare sensations, including sounds but especially imagery. The decorated caves of southern France, once rare and ritualized space, are now tourist attractions, accessible to all through electronic media. Changes in visual technology have made possible a virtual orgy of visual culture; a 2012 count estimated over 348,000,000,000 images on the Internet, with a growth rate of about 10,000 per second. The mix and matrix of information transfer has changed accordingly: orality (and aurality) has been demoted to a certain extent, first with the rise of typography (printing) and then the published picture, and now the ubiquitous electronic image on screens of different sorts. “Seeing is believing” is an expression dating only from about 1800, signaling the surging primacy of the visual. Civilization itself celebrates the light, the visual sense, as the darkness of the night and the narrow street gradually give way to illuminated interiors, light after dark, and ever broader visual surveillance.

Humans also have preferences for certain smells, of course, even if we are (far) less discriminating than most other mammals. Technologies of odor have never been developed as intensively as those of other senses, though we should not forget that for tens of thousands of years hunters have employed dogs—one of the oldest human “tools”—to do their smelling. Smell has also sometimes marked differences between tribes and classes, rationalizing the isolation of slaves or some other subject group. The wealthy are known to have defined themselves by their scents (the ancient Greeks used mint and thyme oils for this purpose), and fragrances have been used to ward off contagions. Some philosophers believed that the scent of incense could reach and please the gods; and of course the devil smelled foul—as did sin.

Still, the olfactory sense lost much of its acuity in upright primates, and it is the rare philosopher who would base an epistemology on odor. Philosophers have always privileged sight over all other senses—which makes sense given how much of our brain is devoted to processing visual images (canine epistemology and agnotology would surely be quite different). Optico-centricity was further accentuated with the rise of novel ways of extending vision in the seventeenth century (microscopes, telescopes) and still more with the rise of photography and moving pictures. Industrial societies have continued to devalue scent, with some even trying to make the world smell-free. Pasteur’s discovery of germs meant that foul air (think miasma) lost its role in carrying disease, but efforts to remove the germs that caused such odors (especially the sewage systems installed in cities in the nineteenth century) ended up mollifying much of the stink of large urban centers. Bodily perfuming has probably been around for as long as humans have been human, but much of recent history has involved a process of deodorizing, further reducing the value of the sensitive nose.

Modern people may well gorge on sight, but we certainly remain sound-sensitive and long for music, “the perfume of hearing” in the apt metaphor of Diane Ackerman. Music has always aroused a certain spiritual consciousness and may even have facilitated social bonding among early humans. Stringed and drum instruments date back only to about 5,500 years ago (in Mesopotamia), but unambiguous flutes date back to at least 40,000 years ago; the oldest known so far is made from vulture and swan bones found in southern Germany. Singing, though, must be far older than whatever physical evidence we have for prehistoric music.

There is arguably a certain industrial utility to music, insofar as “moving and singing together made collective tasks far more efficient” (so claims historian William McNeill). As a mnemonic aid, a song “hooks onto your subconscious and won’t let go.” Music carries emotion and preserves and transports feelings when passed from one person or generation to another—think of the “Star Spangled Banner” or “La Marseillaise.” And music also marks social differences in stratified societies. In Europe by the eighteenth century, for example, people of rank had abandoned participation in the sounds and music of traditional communal festivals and spectacles. To distinguish themselves from the masses, the rich and powerful came to favor the orderly stylized sounds of chamber music—and even demanded that audiences keep silent during performances. One of the signal trends of this particular modernity is the withdrawal of elites from public festivals, creating space instead for their own exclusive music and dance to eliminate the unruly/unmanaged sounds of the street and work. Music helps forge social bonds, but it can also work to separate and to isolate, facilitating escape from community (think earbuds).

We humans also of course crave motion and bodily contact, flexing our muscles in the manner of our ancestors exhilarating in the chase. And even if we no longer chase mammoth herds with spears, we recreate elements of this excitement in our many sports, testing strength against strength or speed against speed, forcing projectiles of one sort or another into some kind of target. Dance is an equally ancient expression of this thrill of movement, with records of ritual motion appearing already on cave and rock walls of early humans. The emotion-charged dance may be diminished in elite civilized life, but it clearly reappears in the physicality of amusement park throngs at the end of the nineteenth century, and more recently in the rhythmic motions of crowds at sporting events and rock concert moshing where strangers slam and grind into each other.

Sensual pleasure is thus central to the “thick tapestry of rewards” of human evolutionary adaptation, rewards wired into the complex circuitry of the brain’s pleasure centers. Pursuit of pleasure (and avoidance of pain) was certainly not an evil in our distant past; indeed, it must have had obvious advantages in promoting evolutionary fitness. Along with other adaptive emotions (fear, surprise, and disgust, for example), pleasure and its pursuit must also have helped create capacities to bond socially—and perhaps even to use and to understand language. The joy that motivates babies to delight in rhythmic and consonant sounds, bright colors, friendly faces, and bouncing motion helps build brain connections essential for motor and cognitive maturity.

Of course the biological propensity to gorge cannot be new; that much we know from the relative constancy of the human genetic constitution over many millennia. We also know that efforts to augment or intensify sensual pleasure long predate industrial civilization. This should come as no surprise, given that, as already noted, our longings for rare delights of taste, sight, smell, sound, and motion are rooted in our prehistoric past. Humans—like wolves—have been bred to binge. But in the past, at least, nature’s parsimony meant that gorging was generally rare and its impact on our bodies, psyches, and sociability limited.

This leads us again to a critical point: pleasure is born in its paucity and scarcity sustains it. And scarcity has been a fact of life for most of human history; in fact, it is very often a precondition for pleasure. Too much of any good can lead to boredom—that is as true for music or arcade games as for ice cream or opera. Most pleasures seem to require a context of relative scarcity. Amongst our prehistoric ancestors this was naturally enforced through the rarity of honey and the all-tooinfrequent opportunity for the chase. Humans eventually developed the ability, however, to create and store surpluses of pleasure-giving goods, first by cooking and preserving foods and drinks and eventually by transforming even fleeting sensory experiences into reproducible and transmissible packets of pleasure. Think about candy bars, soda pop, and cigarettes, but also photography, phonography, and motion pictures—all of which emerged during the packaged pleasure revolution.

Of course, in certain respects the defeat of scarcity has a much older history, having to do with techniques of containerization. Prior to the Neolithic, circa ten thousand years ago, humans had little in the way of either technical means or social organization to store any kind of sensual surplus (though meats may have been stashed the way some nonhuman predators do). Farming and its associated technics changed this. After hundreds of thousands of years of scavenging and predation, people in this new era began to grow their own food—and then to save and preserve it in containers, especially in pots made from clay but also in bags made from skins or fibers from plants. Agriculture seems to have led to the world’s first conspicuous inequalities in wealth, but also the first routine encounters with obesity and other sins of the flesh (drunkenness, for example). Of course the rich—the rulers and priests of ancient city-states and empires or the lords and abbots of religious centers in the Middle Ages—were able to satisfy sensual longings more often, and in some cases continually.

While Christianity was in part a reaction to this sensual indulgence, being originally a religion of the excluded slave and the appalled rich, medieval aristocrats returned to the ancient love of sweet and sour dishes, favoring roasted game (a throwback to the preagricultural era) and the absurd notion that torturing animals before killing them made for the tastiest meats. Medieval European nobility mixed sex, smell, and taste in their large midday meals and frequent evening banquets. Christian church fathers banned perfumes and roses as Roman decadence, but treatments of this sort—along with passions for pungent flavors and scents—were revived with the Crusades and intimate contact with the Orient.

Until recently, pursuit of pleasure on such an opulent scale was confined to those tiny minorities with regular access to the resources to contain and intensify nature. Since antiquity, in fact, the powerful have often been snobbish killjoys, trying to restrict what the poor were allowed to eat, wear, and enjoy. Sometimes this made economic (if invidious) sense—as when England’s Edward III rationed the diet of servants during shortages that followed the Black Death. In the sixteenth century, French law prohibited the eating of fish and meat at the same meal in hopes of preserving scarce supplies. And given the low output of agriculture, there was a certain logic underlying the rationing of access to “luxuries.” But the powerful sometimes seem to have relished denying pleasure to others. How else do we explain sumptuary laws that prohibited the commoner from wearing colorful and costly clothing reserved for aristocrats?

Access to pleasure has long been an expression of privilege and power, but much can be made with little, and rarely has pleasurable display been totally suppressed in any culture. Think of the ceremonies surrounding seasonal festivals, especially the gathering of harvest surplus, when humans drenched themselves in the senses that seemed almost to ache for expression. Think of the Bacchanalia of the Greeks, the Saturnalia of the Romans, the Mardi Gras of medieval Europeans, or the orgies of feasting, dancing, music, and colorful costumes of any society whose everyday world of scarcity is forgotten in bingeing after harvest. Agriculture produced cycles of carnival and Lent, “a self-adjusting gastric equilibrium,” in the words of one historian.

Of course there are many examples of ancient philosophers and sages seeking to limit the hedonism of the privileged (and the festival culture of the poor). Certainly there are ancients who embraced the virtues of moderation, as in Aristotle’s “golden mean” or Confucian ideals of restrained desire. Hebrew prophets, Puritans, Jesuits, and countless Asian ascetics likewise attempted to rein in the fêtes of the senses. Medieval authorities in Europe forbade the eating of meat on Wednesdays, Fridays, and numerous fast days that added up to more than 150 days a year. The classical ideal of moderation was revived, and the moral superiority of grain-based foods was defended. Gluttony was condemned along with lust. Pleasure was to be regulated even in the afterlife, insofar as the Christian heaven was not for pleasure but for self-improvement. These and other ascetic moralities arguably helped people cope with uncertain supplies, putting a brake also on the rapacious greed of the rich and powerful. Curbing of excess extended to all manner of “pleasures of the flesh,” including those that, like sex, were not necessarily even scarce.

Dance came under suspicion in this regard, especially in its ecstatic form. European explorers frowned on the gesticulations of “possessed natives” whom they encountered in Africa and the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the same time, European elites smothered social dancing in the towns and villages of their own societies. The reasons were many. Clergy demanded that their holy days and rituals be protected from defilement by the boisterous and even sacrilegious customs of the frolicking crowd; the rich also chose to withdraw from—and then suppressed—the emotional intensity of common people’s celebrations, retiring instead to the confines of their private gatherings and sedate dances. The military also needed a new type of soldier and new ways of preparing men for war: the demand was no longer to fire up the emotions of soldiers to prepare them for handto-hand combat; the new need was to drill and discipline troops to march unflinching into musket and cannon fire, with individual fighters acting as precision components in a machine. The regular rhythms of the military march served this purpose better than the ecstatic dance.

Even when people found ways of intensifying sensation (as in the distillation of alcoholic spirits), state and church authorities were often able to enforce limits, sometimes by harsh means. In London in the 1720s, authorities repressed the widespread and addictive use of gin (a juniper-flavored liquor). At the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, just as unleashing desire was becoming respectable, philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume still mused about the need for personal restraint and moral sympathies.

By this time, and increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century, especially between about 1880 and 1910, these traditional calls for moderation and self-control were starting to face a new kind of challenge, thanks to new techniques of containerization and intensification that would culminate in the packaged pleasure revolution. New kinds of machines brought new sensations to ordinary people, producing goods that for the first time could be made quite cheap and easily storable and portable. Canned food defeated the seasons, extending the availability of fruits and vegetables to the entirety of the year. Candy bars purchased at any newsstand or convenience store replaced the rare encounter with the honeycomb or wild strawberry. And while our more immediate predecessors may have enjoyed a pipe of tobacco or a draft of warm beer, the deadly convenience of the cigarette and the refreshing coolness of the chilled beverage came within the grasp of the masses only toward the end of the nineteenth century. And this revolution in the range and intensity of sensation radically upset the traditional relationship between desire and scarcity.

A similar process occurred with other sensory delights. While earlynineteenth-century Americans and Europeans thrilled at the sight of painted dioramas and magic lantern shows, nothing compared to the spectacle of fast-paced police chases in the one-reel movies viewable after 1900. Opera was a privileged treat of the few in lavish public places, but imagine the revolution wrought by the 1904 hard wax cylinder phonograph, when Caruso could be called upon to sing in the family parlor whenever (and however often) one wanted. Daredevils in Vanuatu dove from high places holding vines long before bungee jumping became a fad; even so, there was nothing like the mass-market calibrated delivery of physical thrills before the roller coaster, popularized in the 1890s. We find something similar even with binge partying: while peoples had long celebrated surpluses in festivals, they typically did so only on those rare days designated by the authorities. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, festive pleasures of a more programmed sort had become widely available on demand in the modern commercial amusement park.

Especially important is how the packaged pleasure intensified (certain aspects of ) human sensory experience. An extreme example is when opium, formerly chewed, smoked, or drunk as tea, was transformed through distillation into morphine and eventually heroin—and then injected directly into the bloodstream with the newly invented syringe in the 1850s. The creation of a wide variety of “tubes” like the syringe for delivering chemically purified, intense sensation was characteristic of much of this new technology—which we shall describe in terms of “tubularization.” The cigarette is another fateful example: tobacco smoking was made cheap, convenient, and “mild” (i.e., deadly) with the advent of James Bonsack’s automated cigarette rolling machine (in the 1880s) and new methods of curing tobacco. Bonsack’s machine lowered the cost of manufacturing by an order of magnitude, and new methods of chemical processing (such as flue curing) allowed a milder, less alkaline smoke to be drawn deep into the lungs. A new mass-market consumer “good” was born, accompanied by mass addiction and mass death from maladies of the heart and lungs.

The “tubing” of tobacco into cigarettes was closely related to techniques used in packing and packaging many other commercial products. Think of mechanized canning—culminating in the double-seamed cylinder of the “sanitary” can-making machinery of 1904—and mechanized bottle and cap making from the late 1890s. New forms of sugar consumption appeared with the invention of soda fountain drinks. Coca-Cola was first served in drug stores in 1886 and in bottles by the end of the century, and in the 1890s the mixing of sugar with bitter chocolate led to candy bars, such as Hershey’s in 1900. Packaged pleasures of this sort—offered in conveniently portable portions with carefully calibrated constituents—allowed manufacturers to claim to have surpassed the sensuous joys of paradise. Chemists also began to be hired to see what new kinds of foods and drugs could be synthesized to surpass the taste, smell, and look of anything nature had created. A new discipline of “marketing” came of age about this time—the word was coined in 1884—with the task of creating demand for this riot of new products, decked out increasingly in colorful and striking labels with eye- and ear-catching slogans.

New technologies also sped up our consumption of visual, auditory, and motion sensoria. In 1839 the Daguerreotype revolutionized the familiar curiosity of the camera obscura—a dark room featuring a pinhole that would project an image of the outside world onto an interior wall—by chemically capturing that image on a metal plate in a miniaturized “camera” (meaning literally “room”). While these early photographs required long periods of exposure to fix an image, that time dramatically declined over the course of the century, allowing by 1888 the amateur snapshot camera and only three years later the motion picture camera. The effect, as we shall see, was a sea change in how we view and recollect the world. Sound was also captured (and preserved and sold) about this same time. The phonograph, invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison, became a new way of experiencing sound when improved and domesticated. And Emile Berliner’s “record” of 1887 made possible the mass production of sound on stamped-out discs, capturing a concert or a speech in a two- or three-minute record available to anyone, anywhere, with the appropriate gear.

Access and speed took another sensual twist when a Midwesterner by the name of La Marcus Thompson introduced the first mechanized roller coaster, in 1884. Bodily sensations that might have signaled danger or even death on a real train were packed into a two- or three-minute adventure trip on a rail “gravity ride.” Adding another dimension to the thrill was Thompson’s scenic railroad (in 1886) with its artificial tunnels and painted images of exotic natural or fantasy scenes. This was a new form of concentrated pleasure, distilling sights and sounds that formerly would have required days of “regular travel.” Rides, in combination with an array of novel multisensory spectacles, were concentrated into dedicated “amusement parks,” offering a kind of packaged recreational experience, accessible (very often) via the new trolley cars of the 1890s. Some of the earliest and most famous were those built at Coney Island on the southernmost tip of Brooklyn, New York.

Innovations of this sort led us into new worlds of sensory access, speed, and intensity. Distance and season were no longer restraints, as canned and bottled goods moved by rail, ship, and eventually truck across vast stretches of space and climate—with mixed outcomes for human health and well-being.

Some of these new technologies nourished and improved our bodies with cheaper, more hygienic, and varied food and drink; others offered more convenient and effective medicines and toiletries. Still others provided unprecedented opportunities to enjoy the beauty of nature (or at least its image), along with music and new kinds of “visual arts.” Amusement rides gave us (relatively) harm-free ways of experiencing the ecstatic and the exhilaration of danger—plus a kind of simulated or virtual travel; photography froze the evanescent sight, preserving images on a scale never previously possible, and with near-perfect fidelity. Yet packaged pleasures also led to new health and moral threats.

In the most extreme form, concentrating intoxicants led to addictions—physical dependencies that often required ever-increasing dosages to maintain a constant effect, and substantial physical discomfort accompanying withdrawal. Here of course the syringe injection of distilled opiates is the paradigmatic example, and addiction to tobacco and alcoholic drinks must also be included. But the impact of concentrated high-energy foods is not entirely different. Fat- or sugar-rich foods produce not just energy but very often endorphins, morphine-like painkillers that offer comfort and calm. That is one reason they are called “comfort” foods. These rich foods cause neurotransmitters in the brain to go out of balance, resulting in cravings. By contrast, the natural physical pleasures of exercise are much less addicting because we get tired; and some “excess”—here pain is gain—can actually make us healthier.

Not all packaged pleasure dependencies were so obviously chemical. Engineered pleasures often create astonishment and delight when first introduced, for example, but can also raise expectations and dull sensibilities for “unpackaged” stimuli, be they nature’s wonders or unaided convivial and social delights. The pleasures of recorded sound, the captured image, and even the amusement park ride and electronic game often satisfy with a kind of ratcheting effect, rendering the visual, auditory, and motion pleasures in uncommodified nature and society boring. In this sense, the packaging of pleasure can turn the once rare into an everyday, even numbing, occurrence. The world beyond the package becomes less thrilling, less desirable. In the wake of the telephoto lens and artful editing of film—with all the “boring bits” taken out—nature itself can appear dull or impoverished. Why go to the waterfall or forest if you can experience these in compressed form at your local zoo or theme park? Or on IMAX or your widescreen, high-def TV? Packaged pleasures of this sort may not induce physical dependencies, but they can create inflated expectations or even degrade other, less distilled or concentrated, kinds of experiences.

Another point we shall be making is that packaged pleasures have often de-socializedpleasure taking. Many create neurological responses similar to those of religious ecstasies, physical exercise, and social or even sexual intercourse, and can end up substituting for, or displacing, such enjoyments. Weak wine and mild natural hallucinogens have long enhanced spiritual and social experience, but the modern packaged pleasure often has the effect of privatizing satisfaction, isolating it from the crowd. Think of the privatization of public space through portable mp3 players, or the isolating effect of television.

The key point to appreciate is that we today live in a vastly different world from that of peoples living prior to the packaged pleasure revolution, when a broad range of sensual pleasures came to be bottled, canned, condensed, distilled, and otherwise intensified. The impact of this revolution has not been uniform, and we acknowledge and stress these differences, but it does seem to have transformed our sensory universe in ways we are only beginning to understand.

The packaged pleasures we shall be considering in this book include cigarettes, candy and soda pop, phonograph records, photographs, movies, amusements park spectacles, and a few other odds and ends.

But of course not all commodities that are tubed, packed, portable, or preserved can be considered packaged pleasures. For our purposes, we can identify several key and interrelated elements:

  1. The packaged pleasure is an engineered commodity that contains, concentrates, preserves, and very often intensifies some form of sensual satisfaction.
  2. It is generally speaking inexpensive, easy to access (readily at hand), and very often portable and storable, often in a domestic setting.
  3. It is typically wrapped and labeled and thus often marketed by branding. Although often portable, in the case of the amusement park, it can also be enclosed and branded in a contained and fixed space.
  4. The packaged pleasure is often produced by companies with broad regional if not national or even global reach, creating a recognizable bond between the individual consumer and the corporate producer.

Of course we are well aware that many other consumer products exhibit one or more of these attributes—clothes, cars, books, packaged cereals, cocaine, pornography, and department stores just to name a few. Our focus will be on those packaged pleasures that signal key features of the early part of this transformation, and notably those that involve the elements of containment, compression, intensification, mobilization, and commodification. And we recognize that we will not offer an encyclopedic survey of pleasures that have been intensified and packaged—we won’t be treating the history of pornography or perfume, for example, and will consider narcotics and alcoholic beverages only briefly.

We should also be clear that the packaged pleasure revolution is on-going and in many ways has strengthened over time, as pleasure engineers find ever-more sophisticated ways of intensifying desire. And we’ll consider this history at least briefly. Since funneled fun has a tendency to bore us over time, pleasure engineers have repeatedly raised the bar on sensory intensity. Nuts and nougat were added to the simple chocolate bar, and cigarette makers added flavorants and chemicals to enhance or optimize nicotine delivery. The visual panel in motion pictures has been made more alluring with increasingly rapid cuts, and recorded sound has seen a dramatic expansion in both fidelity and acoustical range. Roller coasters went ever higher and faster while also becoming ever safer. Pornography is delivered with ever-greater convenience and is now basically free to anyone with an Internet connection. Even opera fans can now hear (and see) their favorite arias with a simple click on YouTube—at no cost and without leaving home (or sitting through those “boring bits”). Entertainment without the “fiber,” one could say.

Another outcome of the packaged pleasure revolution, then, is the progressive refinement—really reengineering—of sensory experience in the century or so since its beginnings. Optimization of satisfactions has become a big part in this, as one might expect from the fact that packaged pleasures are very often commodities produced by corporations with research and marketing departments. Menthol was added to cigarettes in the 1930s, with the idea of turning tobacco back into a kind of medicine. Ammonia and levulinic acid and candied flavors of various sorts were later added to augment the nicotine “kick,” but also to appeal to younger tastes. Flavor chemists meanwhile learned to manipulate the jolt of “soft drinks” by refining dosings of caffeine and sugar, while candy makers developed nuanced “flavor profiles”— surpassing traditional hard candy, for example, with the sensory complex of a Snickers.

Optimization and calibration we also find in other parts of this revolution. The intense thrill of a loop-de-loop ride, debuted first at Coney Island in the 1890s, gave way to the more varied sensuality of “themed” rides. Roller coasters have been designed to go to the edge of exhilaration, stopping just short of the point of nausea or injury. The same principle works with gambling, where even losers keep playing because of the carefully calibrated conditioning that comes with the periodic (and precisely calculated) win built into the game. Pleasure engineers have learned how to create video games that are easy enough to engage newcomers, but complex enough to sustain the interest of experienced players. Gaming engineers even seek to encourage (or require) physical movement and social interactions—think Wii games—to counter critics cautioning against the bodily and social negatives of overly virtualized lives.

Our focus is on the origins of the technologies involved in such transformations, though we also are aware that such novelties have always encountered critics, those who worry that an oversated consuming public would lose control and abandon work and family responsibilities. But the reality in terms of social impact often has been quite different. Few of these optimized pleasures have ever undermined the willingness of consumers to work and obey—and have done little to undermine nerves and sensibilities (as some have feared). Indeed they have often contributed to a new work ethic driven by new needs and imperatives to earn and toil evermore in order to be able to afford the delights of movies, candy, soda, cigarettes, and the rest of the show. Over time, and often a surprisingly short time, these commodified delights have become a kind of second sensory nature—customary and accepted ways of eating, inhaling, seeing and hearing, and feeling.

Scholars have long debated the impact of “modern consumer culture,” albeit too often in negative terms without considering the historical origins of the phenomena in question. In the 1890s, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim feared that the “masses” would be enervated, even immobilized, by technical modernity’s overwhelming assault on the senses. And Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World (1932) warned of a coming culture of commoditized hedonism oblivious to tyranny. Jeremiahs of this sort have singled out different culprits, with blame most often placed on the “weaknesses” of the masses or the manipulation of merchandisers, with the hope expressed that the virtuous few in their celebration of nature and simplicity would constitute a bulwark against immediate gratification and degrading consumerism. These critics have been opposed by apologists for “democratic access” to the choice and comforts of modern consumer society—who champion the idea that only killjoy elitists could find fault in the delights of pleasure engineering. This perspective dominates a broad swath of social science—especially from neoclassical economists (think of George Stigler and Gary Becker’s famous dictum on the nondisputability of taste).

We argue instead that we need to abandon the overgeneralization common to both jeremiahs and free-market populists. Of course it is true that the very notion of a “packaged pleasure revolution” suggests certain links between the cigarette, bottled soda, phonograph records, cameras, movies, and even amusement parks. But the impact of these various inventions over the decades has been very different, and cannot be subsumed under some procrustean notion of “modern consumer culture.” Rather, as we shall see, their distinct histories suggest very different effects on our bodies and our cultures that would seem to require very different personal and policy responses. Our view is that the sale of cigarettes (as presently designed) should be heavily regulated and ultimately banned, for example, while soda should probably only be shamed and (heavily) taxed. And we make no policy recommendations for film or sound “packages.” But we certainly need to better understand how these technologies have shaped and refined (distorted?) our sensibilities.

We should also keep in mind that there are global consequences to the packaged pleasure revolution—and that most of these lie in the future. This is unfinished business. Overconsumption is part of the problem, as is the undermining of world health (notably from processed sugar and cigarettes). The revolution is ongoing, as the engineered world of compressed sensibility spreads to ever-different parts of the globe, and ever-different parts of human anatomy and sociability. It may be hard to opt out of or to escape from this brave new world, but the conditions under which it arose are certainly worth understanding and confronting.

This book takes on a lot. Our hope is to move us beyond the classic debate between the jeremiahs against consumerism and the defenders of a democratic access to commercial delights. We root mass consumption in a sensory revolution facilitated by techniques that upset the ancient balance between desire and scarcity. We take a fresh look at how technology has transformed our nature.

To read more about Packaged Pleasures, click here.

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