There has to be a word for what I’m thinking of.
Probably two words. Probably — if I guessed right, if the other people thinking about this think in the same way that I do — one of those words is “systems.”
I want to call them sticky systems, but that seems to mean something else; a sticky system, in the business-world sense, is a system that is easy to adhere to.
I want the words that describe a system that is difficult to leave.
More than that — a system that is specifically designed to be difficult to leave.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, anything with both intermittent reinforcement and an infinite scroll.
Credit card debt.
Foods that have been engineered to hit ever-escalating “bliss points”.
Escalation is practically built into these systems. Two years ago, for example, you might have been able to get by with Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Now — well, you already know where I’m going with this, because you’ve probably already asked yourself just how many subscription series you can afford, and whether it was worth it to pay for one month of Disney+ last summer to watch Hamilton.
But it isn’t just that there are more things to subscribe to. It’s also that the things to which you are already subscribed have started to add, like, sub-subscriptions. It used to be that all you needed to access the exclusive parts of Amazon Prime Video was — wait for it — an Amazon Prime membership. Now, every time L and I find something on Prime that we want to watch, Amazon tells us that we actually need to subscribe to Starz or Acorn or Paramount+.
And yes, you can get around some of the escalating costs by subscribing to Netflix in August and Hulu in September, if you don’t mind watching The Queen’s Gambit (or whatever it is) a few months after everyone else. Picking up a new streaming media service and canceling it as soon as the initial payment clears is relatively easy (although some services kick you off the system as soon as you cancel instead of giving you the full month to enjoy your stuff, always read the fine print).
Canceling a Patreon subscription is a lot harder — especially if you know the artist whom you no longer want to support. You can imagine, probably all too well, how ending your monthly contribution might make their life more difficult. The whole I can’t stop making monthly payments to a person with a face guilt factor is one of the biggest reasons why I am not signing up for any Substacks.
This is where I could say something like “stop reading internet, only read books,” except that books can be sticky systems too. L and I recently checked out The Testaments from the library, for example, and we both had the exact same reaction: this book was specifically designed to manipulate us and we hate it.
First, Atwood did the thing where you hang your characters off a cliff at the end of each chapter and then immediately switch storylines — which is one of the best ways to create a so-called “page turner,” because it’s also an intermittent reinforcement deal (will the next chapter be the one that has your favorite characters in it, or will you have to read a few more before you find out what happens to them?).
Then, she soaped up her story with chase scenes and Chosen Ones and plot twists that were so obvious that — well, that’s also a manipulation tactic, isn’t it, you keep reading because part of you is screaming get to the part where she learns the BIG SECRET, why aren’t we at that part yet, I know it’s coming and I want to be proven right!!!
By the last third of the story, L and I both admitted that we were only reading to find out whether there was a payoff to all of this, something so substantive and satisfying that it would make the experience of having read the book worth it.
But — spoiler alert — there wasn’t.
In fact, the entire book seemed like it only existed to get us to watch the next season of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu.
Whereas the original Handmaid’s Tale, the novel Atwood published in 1985, existed to make us think. To see the world in a new way; to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions; to contribute to the story by considering, even for the briefest moment, what might have happened to Offred after she got in that van.
If a system’s primary reason for existing is to get you to spend money on something, it is to that system’s advantage to be as difficult to leave as possible.
Other types of systems — the ones that are easy to leave and difficult to stick to — exist for different reasons. Personal growth, perhaps. Love. The pursuit of a specific skill or discipline. Partnership. Family. Community.
So it is to our advantage to choose our systems wisely. To spend our time and our money within systems that encourage our own growth and development, rather than the growth and development of (to borrow the cliché) “some corporation.”
That’s where I want to start this conversation.
On Thursday, I’d like to write about how to specifically apply this idea to personal finance.
But before I do, please let me know if there is a commonly-accepted term for the kinds of systems I’m writing about. ❤️