The story of the Procrustean bed—making the customer fit the product—is a good way to look at how global corporations operate.
Metaphors can come and go and never change your point of view. Every once in a while, though, a metaphor comes along that is powerful enough to color the way you look at things for awhile, which is what a metaphor is supposed to do: a metaphor helps you make the leap from a more limited to a larger perspective.
I’ve heard the phrase “Procrustean bed” many times over the years and never really bothered to look it up. I always figured it was some sort of geological reference. Turns out, it has nothing to do with geology at all. It has to do with an innkeeper from Greek mythology, Procrustes, the prototypical bed-and-breakfast proprietor who appears inordinately hospitable and accommodating of your every need but who is actually in business simply to ensnare you for his own amusement. This metaphor of the Procrustean bed was ready-made for me because, despite the presumed homeyness of a bed and breakfast, I never feel at home in one. As I walk the halls, I nervously await one of the rattling tchotchkes to come crashing down onto the quaintly undulating creaky floorboards.
Procrustes was the patron saint of this sort of hospitable confinement. This ancient innkeeper stood by the roadside, beckoning all travelers to come in for a good meal and a night’s rest on his legendary bed—a bed which could accommodate anyone, short and tall alike. Once you had decided to take him up on his offer and were well fed, he conducted you to his vaunted bedchamber, whereupon you would be placed on his one-size-fits-all iron bed. If you were too long for his bed, he cut your legs off. If you were too short, he stretched you out on the rack.
A Procrustean bed, then, is an arbitrary standard that all are forced to fit into. It appears to accommodate everyone efficiently, but it leads instead to pain and torment for all except those who fit it precisely.
One day not so long ago my brother used the phrase, and I finally admitted that I had no idea what it meant. Once he let me in on the metaphor, I began to see Procrustean beds all over the place: the world we are creating seems to value conformity and constriction far more than freedom, although freedom is what we are supposedly receiving more and more of.
One of today’s foremost Procrustean beds is democratic ideology and the marketplace that comes with it. The American government believes that the form of government and lifestyle developed here represents the pinnacle of human history. It is the comfortable waterbed that everyone the world over would want to luxuriate in. We find it comfortable, so you must find it comfortable as well. Don’t quite fit? That’s O.K. No need to change beds. We can just stretch you out to fit. Once you have a few Starbucks, a raft of MacDonald’s and a Wal-Mart or two, you won’t notice the pain.
In fact, those very establishments and many more like them make up the enormous retail Procrustean bed we are so often made to lie in when we set out in search of food, clothing, equipment, diversion or just about anything. The retail Procrustean bed is upsized, king-sized and fast. If it’s small and slow, it doesn’t cut it. Big Technicolor tomatoes and apples, all the same shape and size, fill the produce bins of all the supermarkets, shipped from the same few suppliers. Small shops in downtowns across North America are being shuttered as the Wal-Mart is built on the outskirts of town where the small farm used to be. Wal-Mart is the way to buy just about anything. The same clerk who helps you buy lug wrenches can help you with baby clothes and computers, with the selfsame lack of knowledge of all the products.
When you walk into the breathtaking colossus that is Wal-Mart, you can feel human-scale specialty stores and their proprietors being sucked into the vortex, including all the stores that repaired things. In the Procrustean bed of the superstore, items that don’t work are thrown away and replaced with the newer and cheaper model.
Another experience that’s gone king-sized is the movies. Everything about going to the movies today is outsized, except the size of the screening room you end up in. It’s extremely hard to find a place today showing just one movie. Twelve to eighteen is common. From the parking lot to the ticket line to the concession trough to the video arcade, it’s a rollicking madhouse. At a soda counter way back when, a small coke was six ounces. At the multiplex, the minimum drink standard is twice that size or more. Has thirst been on the rise with human evolution? Popcorn is dispensed in such gargantuan quantities that it overflows onto the floor and the clerks wade through a slurry of crushed popcorn, processed cheese food and sticky soda pop syrup. The movie you are about to see is unlikely to be much more appealing, conforming as it must to the limitations set out by studio-think. If it’s not derived from a previous blockbuster, why would anyone like it?
Shopping for books—not to say many of the books themselves—have also gone the way of the multiplex. An independent bookseller I was fond of was bought out by a chain, which eventually closed the downtown location. It’s since been replaced by a 24-hour MacDonald’s. I have to shop for books at the big superstore with the built-in Starbucks. If hungry, I can go to one of the theme restaurants next door and eat the same chicken wings, wrap sandwiches or authentic barbecue I could get in any super-mall in America. Whether the decor is Wild West, Italian or cartoon, the menu is the same.
Technology itself has become the ultimate Procrustean bed. Early computer programs allowed creativity and adaptation. Now they encourage conforming to a standardized way of thinking developed in the exurbs of Seattle. At this very moment, for example, thousands of people are cramming their information into PowerPoint presentations, even though such presentations delivered in dimly lit rooms limit interaction with participants and favor canned sloganeering. That’s the bed we’re supposed to lie in.
A standard can be a mark of excellence, something to aspire to, but in a mass-produced and mass-marketed world, standards mean an unending pursuit of sameness and mediocrity. When diversity and originality have been vanquished and every place has become the same, Procrustes will have won. The Greeks invented this metaphor as a warning for mankind. In their mythology, the bed was laid as a challenge for the hero Theseus. He overcame it and brought Procrustes career to an end. Where are the mythic heroes when you need them the most? In aisle seven—Games and Videos.