Tuesday, December 18, 2012
After reading the story "Mister Squishy" by David Foster Wallace and really liking the design of it, I found myself uncertain whether certain aspects were actually there or just something I read into it. So, I looked around online for interpretations of the story, especially one given by Wallace, but I couldn't find anything too useful—and I felt that many popular summaries were doing the story a disservice by describing its marketing language as 'noise' or 'random,' since it appeared as a stream of coherent concepts in my reading. So, here's my interpretation.
The story is about the deception, manipulation, and unwavering self-interest that underlies the operation of modern corporations, particularly those whose success is highly dependent on the public's perception of the company and its products. The story is set in a downtown skyscraper, and the structure of the story matches this setting, its layers being displayed one at a time in an upward journey that reveals the figures of each lower level to have been duped by someone above.
At the start of the story we are shown a focus group in progress, and are introduced to its coordinator, Schmidt. Then we are shifted up a level for the first time: it is revealed that the company isn't interested in the immediate results of the focus group, but is instead using it as a component in a larger experiment involving a parallel focus group being conducted with a slight difference. In particular, the group which we are shown is given information on the the processes behind the development of the product (a chocolate snack-cake), particularly the concepts behind its marketing; the other group will not be given this information. The aspect monitored for variation between the two groups is a measure of difference between individual surveys of members within the group, and a single group survey which each group will fill out together; in other words, deviation between their private and public responses to the product—though "public response" is probably too much of a simplification: the story treats groups of people as isolable, abstract organisms, the organisms studied by statistical methods; so really, the group evaluation contains the responses of this group organism.
Now it seems that the purpose of the focus group, rather than gathering information about consumer response to the snack-cake, is to improve the design of future focus groups. Schmidt, however, informs the reader through glimpses we are given to his thoughts during the session, that the focus groups have no material impact: rather than using the collected data to make inferences about consumer preferences, it is desirable to end with a nebulous analysis which could conclude one outcome or another based on which direction the client company is already planning on moving in: the focus groups can only confirm a decision which has already been made: a deviation on this will result in the termination of the marketing firm. And so, the focus group facilitator, Schmidt, presumes that the real purpose of this inter-focus group experiment is to generate multiple conclusions so that a desirable data set may be selected at a later date.
Then we ascend another level. We are introduced to the perspective of a member higher up in the marketing firm—Awad, and a peer of Schmidt's who has the favor of Awad: Mounce. Awad shares with Mounce that the true purpose behind the inter-focus group study is to explore a class of marketing strategy where a depiction of the inner workings of the company is the subject of advertising material. So, Schmidt, without knowing it, is effectively delivering to the focus group a primitive form of this behind-the-product advertising, and his peer Lilley gives a similar presentation absent the behind-the-product information to another group.
Then we ascend another level. We are introduced to the perspective of a member higher up in the marketing firm than Awad: Britton. Britton also has a mentee, who he discusses strategy with while smoking cigars: Laleman. Britton and Lalemen have a sub-surface power struggle between them, Lalemen thinking he is on an approach to surreptitiously overtaking Britton, while Britton is fully aware of Lalemen's machinations. Still, they discuss the future of demographic analysis which they anticipate will be carried out by monitoring websites rather than running focus groups. The only problem is all of the presently employed focus group coordinators. Here is shown the penultimate deception of the plot: the inter-group experiment is actually a device that will be used to demonstrate to the coordinators their own inimical influence on the focus groups, using a statistical argument which the coordinators, themselves statisticians, will be forced to accept, followed by their resignation—or, if they are so unreasonable as to protest, as evidence against any case they may form in a lawsuit regarding their termination. The argument which Britton is devising centers on the fact that humans are random components interfering with the demographic analysis process, and in order to concretely represent this fact the focus group will have a "stressor" appear who pushes the coordinator to behaving erratically.
There is another character, nearly silent, who plays an important part in my interpretation of the story as a whole: a participant in Schmidt's group, who is referred to as "I" in the story's narration, so that we must identify this character with the narrator of the story; however, the narration is omniscient, switching between the thoughts of many people in the course of the story; so, I conclude that this character is different from the others—he is a meta character who is a character in the story, but also represents the story itself. This "I" is covered in sensors, has been given a script which he must stick closely to, and wears an "emetic prosthesis," that can be used to simulate vomiting. He is the stressor which Britton has inserted in order to effect his strategy of giving the coordinators "enough rope."
It is important to note also that this strategy of introducing a stressor and observing the results is demonstrated several times in the story (most vividly when Britton has Awad make unwanted sexual advances toward Lilley, just to observe her character), and becomes a symbol for the concept of applying scientific methods in a callous fashion.
Similarly, by various approaches the concept of the consumer's awareness of marketing activity is presented, the conclusion generally being that at best the consumer has a superficial sort of awareness which the marketing agencies have already easily accounted for.
Two other facts have evolved in parallel with the story's principle structure outlined above: Schmidt is a deeply dissatisfied person (probably) interchangeable with the typical white collar worker, and Schmidt has been developing (and implementing?) a scheme for injecting a lethal poison into the snack-cakes.
So, we are introduced to an experiment where one group of people is given the (appearance of the) marketing strategy behind a product, and a control group is not; in this experiment is a character present who will stress the group so that some outcome may be observed (using his emetic prosthesis)—and this character represents the story itself; and, the reading of the story represents a sort of experiment analogous to the inter-focus group experiment: we have just been given a generalized version of the story-behind-the-product—we have been told the story behind products. Thus another layer of deception has been revealed: the real purpose behind the experiment was to inform readers of the more complex and insidious reality behind product marketing—but, this character, who is the story, also played the role of a stimulus used to provoke a reaction which could be scientifically observed, so the story must play that role also, and the author wins the pinnacle seat on the tower of deception, and proves himself the master of calculating manipulation.
And there's another question left fairly uncertain: did Britton know about Schmidt's development of the poison or not? If so, then the emetic prostheses is supposed to trick Schmidt into thinking that one of the members of his group is vomiting in reaction to a poisoned snack-cake. If not, then the final scene where Laleman notes a chocolate cake stain on Britton's finger, laughing internally in reply, would seem to indicate that Laleman was exulting in consideration of Britton's demise. But, we are informed in the story that the chosen poison would take 24-36 hours to take effect, so I'm inclined to go with the latter interpretation, which seems to imply that the cog-like victims of the marketing machine eventually get their revenge.
There's also a guy scaling the wall of the building and drawing a crowd that speculates on his activities throughout the story, who in the end, while carrying a gun or gun replica, inflates his costume which bears the image of "Mister Squishy" (the logo for the snack cake company). I see this scenario as representing the reality of the interaction of marketing firms with consumers: the marketers put on a carefully designed show and the consumers are drawn to it inexorably, their awareness of their situation never reaching more than superficial levels, though many take satisfaction in their delusions of knowledge.