Acquisitionalism and the lure of the insider

The internet drives gear geekery, this much we know. I recall, back in my elementary school gear geek days, the excitement when the quarterly (and no more!) Patagonia and TNF catalogues arrived. Online “research” has sped up information dissemination, and decreased our attention spans. That this has led to gear fetishization taking the place of trip planning more than ever before is I think axiomatic. The more interesting question is just how this takes places, daily.

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Bibler Eldorado eyebrown vent, as the seam seal dries in our garage. This is a damn expensive tent, even discounted.

The internet drives acquisitionalism not just because it brings all the cool new stuff so easily into view, but because the internet fosters community, and within that community one can bear witness to the acquisitions of others. The summary and quite unconscious effect of this is to drive the consumer mindset further. First by simple exposure to various stuff, some of which is bound to appeal, and second by inculcating an illusion that the mean pace of gear acquisition is significantly highly than your own. The ago-old competition to have the best lawn mower, atlatl, etc is like all things digital made more egregious.

The illusions created by the distance and depersonalization of the ‘net can be here rather dangerous. There is often no way to know if that well-versed person who flips cuben fiber, carbon bikes, or uber light mountain rifles every few months is a single anaesthesiologist making 600k a year, or merely an average joe with a disregard for credit card debt (something far more prevalent than most think, in my opinion). It’s worth noting that women make up seemingly 3% of the online gear chatter, for reasons I will not speculate on today.

There is another, perhaps more pernicious form of this, which I’ll call the lure of the insider. It further feeds and distorts the normalization of buying ever more stuff, and lay folks can fall victim if they don’t mind the gap. The gap being the discrepancy between the purchasing power of those with access to industry discounts and those who do not. I say access because the various permutation of bro deals and good guy discounts can never be fully accounted for. In either case, the potential savings on big ticket items can be substantial.

In my case, I occasionally get free stuff, be it a project for BPL or because the perceived influence I wield here on this blog. This last doesn’t happen very often, hopefully in part because I make it a point to be hard to contact.  Pro-deals are a more substantial influence on my purchases, both their nature and their frequency.  By choice I make an exceedingly modest income, and much of the gear I’ve acquired lately would simply never have been attainable at full retail.

The first effect of this is to make me appear more affluent than I am, which given the effect size I don’t consider a big risk.  The second effect, and the more interesting, is the influence discounts have on my purchasing habits.  I don’t buy crap, or even anything in which I’m not interested, just because it is on sale, but if my third choice ski or jacket is 100 bucks less that will be a powerful argument.  The sticking point in all this is that part of every pro-deal agreement I’ve seen is a non-disclosure clause.  One prominent company, whose pro-deal is both very generous and notoriously hard to get, takes their inspiration from Fight Club: “the first rule of pro-deal is you don’t talk about pro-deal.”  While part of this is no doubt to keep them from being inundated by applications from wankers, it also distorts the market and the culture around it in a way which supports commercial excess and can only benefit gear makers.

So be a critical consumer of gear talk, in any setting.  There is no such thing as objectivity, but that does not mean that all forms of subjectivity are merely subjective or created equal.  For my own part I’ll be more open about the purchasing details in future gear posts, though for selfish reasons not as purely transparent as I might like.  I don’t want to be kicked of the free ride, and I am not afraid to admit as much.

There are benefits to all this, both generally and in my case.  My own ability to think critically about gear is undeniably enhanced by being able to use more gear, and by being able to acquire it more easily.  Uniting the focus provided by unity of perspective with a broad first hand view of the market is valuable and difficult to achieve, and anything which makes that more probable is helpful.  I also find it useful to be less attached to a purchase.  If the monetary investment is substantial and there is no easy way to recoup some of that cost it is harder to admit to yourself that something is crap.  Having a lower upfront cost makes this less likely, as does the speculative value inherent in pro-deals.  Buy something at discount, use it for a few months, sell it at 50% of MSRP.  This usually ends up being a good deal for the buyer and a modest loss over the purchase price for the seller, and allows my gear fund to chug along with minimal reinvestment needed.

All of which is a great preamble for my new role as a Gossamer Gear trail ambassador.  I’m excited, not just because I get a free pack and discounts on other stuff, but because it appears that I’ll be able to have some influence in the product development process.  Gossamer Gear has raised their game in recent years, and appears to have one of the most robust business model of the UL backpacking companies.  They also do things differently than I do, which seemed important.  There wouldn’t be much point in my feedback going to a company like HMG with whom I already agree on many things.  My hope is that in a few years Gossamer Gear can take their products in some new directions, and that I can help them do it.  Look for thoughts and numbers of the Gorilla pack whenever it arrives.

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10 thoughts on “Acquisitionalism and the lure of the insider

  1. Gossamer sounds like an interesting company. Three friends of mine spent a year hiking the length of South America from Tierra del Fuego to the Columbia border and used their packs. You would appreciate their gear breakdown: http://eathikesleephike.blogspot.com/p/gear-list.html. And here are some posts/reviews/modifications they made to their Gossamer packs: http://eathikesleephike.blogspot.com/search/label/Gear. I guess they’re part of the 3%!

  2. “It’s worth noting that women make up seemingly 3% of the online gear chatter, for reasons I will not speculate on today.”

    I’ve wondered why this is myself. I can’t speculate on it either because as an individual, there are few subjects I find less readable than gear chatter. I do value good gear, so I do try to wade through it from time to time. But often, I don’t. As an example, I was planning a short bike tour over Memorial Day in 2010 and at the last minute decided I should take a tent, which I did not own. I walked into REI the day before my trip and purchased the first tent I saw on the floor, because the salesperson kept pestering me with questions and I was not in the mood. It was a Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 (not on sale.) I still use this tent, and like it. But I have no frame of reference for why my Seedhouse might be better than any other tent out there, and logic would tell me that the odds are low that this is the best tent for me. But faced with the choice to use it or endure the chore of acquiring a new tent, I’d probably choose to keep it indefinitely, at least until it falls apart. That’s effectively my gear mindset. My partner is very different from this, as was my previous partner, and their attentiveness has ensured that only a few of my gear decisions have been made with this little regard to specifics.

    So I actually feel like I’m at that extreme of gear chatter. No interest whatsoever. I stumble across it all the time in my appetite for outdoor reading, but usually my eyes glaze over. When runners talk about shoes, I want to gouge my eyes out. I of course read and enjoy your blog; I don’t make it through any of the gear posts (save for this one), but I can appreciate that these things matter. And like a bored child who’s been told that homework is good for me, I vow to make more of an effort in the future.

  3. I have a limited tolerance for gear talk, but a much greater appetite for meta about approaches to gear. I find it amazing that you go through as much gear as you do. Once I find something I like, I pretty much lose interest in that category of stuff until I either wear it out or my needs change such that whatever it is no longer adequate. I feel like I’m pretty particular about how I like things to work, but compared to a lot of gearheads (in this as well as other areas like tech, or kitchen equipment) I don’t seem to have the drive to seek the ever-better. Good enough is good enough. I’d be a great gear reviewer up until I found what I wanted, but after that I’d be useless.

  4. This has too many words so I didn’t read it all but can say that I love gear, love buying gear, love testing/using gear but don’t like reading technical reviews of gear or talking about gear except to say “it’s awesome!” or “it sucks.” I hope this helps. :-) :p

    • We were at a little local gear show this past weekend. That was my first experience of that type. After looking at our wares, a gal walked away with her husband and I overheard her say “there are so many backpacks”. Indeed. And the truth is that they’re all more or less OK at a purely functional level. I wondered whether our particular little niche would be at the show, and if so how they might self select. Perplexing question for me, because I don’t have a concrete way of describing who our customers are. Lo and behold, a few folks found us. Who were they? People like us, whatever that means. I’m with SamH. Time to go check out the snow level in the West Elks.

      • Can’t have too many packs. There are some gear items I don’t get too excited about and thus don’t put much thought into: stoves and shelters, for example. Packs on the other hand, are worthy objects of obsession.

        I reckon that, with respect to most anything, if you can’t be categorized you must be doing something very right.

  5. Dave, a cogent post and very thought-provoking. Though you touch on this, I think you leave a major aspect of internet-driven gear lust un-analyzed–its corporate nature and backing. As it stands today, most major gear purveyors (and here Patagonia and Osprey are serious exceptions) are owned by larger corporate groups who see the outdoor industry as a burgeoning market. Black Diamond is an excellent example of this phenomenon as it was acquired a few years ago by Clarus Corp. (which also owns Gregory), a shell company that until recently had no interest in the outdoor industry. It’s chief leader, Warren Kanders was formerly of Armor Holdings, Inc. and profited significantly from the government’s military-industrial spending. BD and Gregory are not alone along this corporate path–in fact, they are rather typical.

    The practical upshot of all this is that the lure of acquisitionalism (a nice turn of phrase, by the way) is a carefully constructed corporate fantasy. Just as the internet has disseminated information about gear, it has also disseminated marketing about gear. In fact, with the business model of the internet being based primarily upon advertising, this issue becomes even more present. It is not only our own carnal desires that drive gear purchasing, but also unimaginably large companies who intentionally use marketing to take advantage of human psychology. Thus, the skepticism that you advocate is even more essential; otherwise, we end up in endless spirals of credit card debt and gear-buying that profits no one but corporate America. And that is not to mention the rampant environmental destruction that goes against the very values of those who prefer to spend as much time outside as they can.

    All that said, I think Patagonia is providing not only an excellent counter-example to the outdoor industry model but also a damning critique to business as usual. The Wall Street Journal did an interesting profile of Chouinard (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303513404577352221465986612.html) in which he implicitly calls out his competitors for their unsustainable business practices. The subtext of Yvon’s way of doing business is damning for anyone who spends a fair amount of time cruising the internet for better gear. In the era of corporately managed adventure, it is at least somewhat refreshing.

    All that said, I am interested in your future discussions on being a Trail Ambassador for Gossamer Gear and your impressions of the most recent Gorilla. I must admit that I was taken aback when I read the announcement in their newsletter. Like you said, you and GG don’t seem to have much in common, but I am interested to see what kind of impact your feedback might have on the company. Personally, I was very underwhelmed when I ordered the new Gorilla last summer. Compared to ULA or HMG, it seemed to me like advanced MYOG in design and execution. I sent the pack back entirely untested. Even so, I do like the broad strokes of their ideas, and I am interested to see what kind of shift in detail they make in the future.

  6. Pingback: The Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody | Bedrock & Paradox

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