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Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Pet Rock: Value and the Birth of Modernity

A valueless thing was given value

The year was 1975, and times were seriously changing. The protests against the Vietnam War had finally ended an egregious slaughter. A president had resigned to avoid impeachment. The postwar economic policies of the ruling class had failed. The illusion that the state could plan the economy and save the world began its precipitous freefall. And modern consumer culture was born with the most preposterous possible product: a rock in a box.

It sold millions. It enraptured the masses with its sheer implausibility, and people delighted in every bit of it, without even knowing why. They didn’t need to know why.

Gary Dahl, the inventor of the Pet Rock, has died at the age of 78, and he has some regrets about his product and its cultural impact. He shouldn’t have regretted a thing. He taught us economics. He taught us about the marketplace. He demonstrated the lie that elites can outwit consumers. With one brilliant stroke, he showed that economic activity is inseparable from the silliness and play that is part of the human spirit. His product showed us the way to universal human empowerment, and it gave birth to modernity as we know it.

Dahl taught us that value is subjective, an extension of the human mind and nothing else. Value only has meaning in reference to someone. There is no necessary relationship between cost and price. Innovations that please people are unexpected. What strikes some as irrational to others is perfectly rational. The reasons people buy are too complex to be put in a formula. Value creation defies every prediction. Intellectuals can never outsmart the market. These are the lessons of the mighty, beautiful, transforming, and forever-challenging pet rock.

It was a joke that refuted a century of intellectual error. Every system of intentional social organization until that time had made the same mistake. They all presumed knowledge of the world that individual human minds cannot possess. The dominant systems — whether socialist, social democratic, Keynesian, or fascist — presumed that society cannot manage itself without the assistance and wise hand of authority. They postulated that an empowered elite, if given enough resources, guided by the highest intelligence, and backed by enough power, could choose what is best for us, overriding our preferences and dreams and imposing something alien from the top down.

Then came the rock. The idea originally came to Dahl while having a drink with friends. Pets are so much trouble, require so much care. The best pet would be a rock, said Dahl. His next thought: this idea could have legs.

Sure enough, it was a consumer phenom. Every store had to carry it. They flew off the shelves. Cashiers stood in awe as people shelled out $4 to have their dream. People of all ages happily made the exchange. Stores couldn’t keep it in stock.

What was going on? It was a revolt. Despite a century of abuse, people still had the right to spend money on legal products. Producers still had a right to sell them.

America rose up in defiance and said (if not quite seriously or  not quite out loud): I will buy this rock. I will love this rock. I will care for this rock. I will make this entrepreneur a rich man. I will teach a lesson to humanity: we cannot be controlled, we cannot be caged, we cannot be made to comply with priorities other than our own. Our minds cannot be replaced by others.

And so they bought the stupidest possible product ever put on a shelf. The idea had to be be emblazoned on the cultural landscape. The lesson could have been taught with anything, but consumers chose the one thing that made the least sense, the one good that totally embarrassed the pretentions of the elites and defied the demands of intelligentsia from coast to coast. It had to be a rock, a product with a use value that, by any objective standard, was exactly zero. In the end, who or what defines what constitutes use value? The American consumer made the statement: it is us.

Just as we defied the draft, the state’s arbitrary control over our bodies, we defied its economic plans, its arbitrary control over our commercial choices. The reason why central planning was failing all over the world was because it did not understand or respect the system from which pet rocks can emerge. We squandered our precious and scarce resources on producing and purchasing rocks in boxes, and why? For a simple reason: it is what we valued. No tedious explaining, rationale, or justification necessary. We were exercising that precious and essential freedom to do with our money what we wanted to do.

And America delighted as its best and brightest scoffed in disgust. But there was no stopping it. Money was being made by everyone involved. And the people held up their rocks and looked at them with pride, showed them off to friends and neighbors, and enjoyed every minute of it, as the cultural snobs and the codified protectors of the national interest recoiled.

It was the birth of consumer culture as an act of defiance. And today, we do it every single day, as we listened to unapproved music, inhale unapproved plants, and download mobile applications that were never submitted to a central committee to approve their social merit. It was a rock, an inauspicious artifact of nature, a valueless thing to which we gave value, that showed us how.

Gary Dahl, rest in peace.