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The rubber band of desire

January 8, 2011
Power Balance wristband

I was amused by a story on the BBC concerning a fashionable new celebrity sporting wristband called a “Power Balance Band”. Apparently it’s all the rage amongst the glitterati and sporting heroes. According to the Power Balance company website, these simple neoprene bands are “designed to react positively with your body’s natural energy field”. Which is nice. The word “technology” is used liberally in descriptions, while the product is claimed to aid bodily balance and – my favourite – includes a small hologram which “optimises natural energy flow” in the manner of ancient Eastern philosophies. Ah yes, the mystical majesty of the hilltop Tibetan temple with its ancient holographic prayer wheels….

Now it’s easy to snort at this pseudo-scientific marketing tosh. And the product has had indignant responses from the likes of Simon Singh;

“Technology implies science. You look at a Power Balance band and you say ‘I don’t see the technology, I don’t think it’s biologically plausible, I don’t see research trials, I just see a bit of rubber”

But it’s clearly selling well, and has many endorsements from famous sporting personalities. So while the science might be dodgy, the marketing machine is 24 carat. What’s happening here? And what does it mean – if anything – for the perception of science in public?

It’s hardly new to appropriate the proverbial lab coat in order to sell something. Almost every hair and make-up product on the market has a ‘science bit’ to add credibility in advertising. Science seems particularly prone to appropriation in the wider public sphere – whether in advertising, film fiction or good old fashioned medical snake oil. The recent court case of Singh v British Chiropractic Association is a good example. But why does non-scientific culture feel so comfortable with the idea of taking what it likes from science without the empirical rigour that’s supposed to accompany it?

My guess is that it’s a symptom of the deliberate separation of science from a burgeoning consumer society. The traditional focus for scientific integration in the public sphere has concerned the ‘scientific literacy’ of the citizen. Basically, the degree of “non-scientificness” of the ordinary person, and how to correct it. But little attention is paid to the “non-publicness” of scientists and science practice – how little science might understand wider public attitudes, prejudices, hopes, interests and concerns. So science retreats into a “black box” from which miraculous products spring. And it works, because wonderful products do spring from science, which the public value greatly. Science delivers.

However, late-modernism has changed the citizen from merely a receiver of products to a consumer. The promise of consumerism – however real or illusory – confers certain powers and effects on an individual’s relationship with products. Broadly these are:-

  • Choice – we are empowered to select the artifacts we need in life from a range of options (who chooses and constrains these options is another matter).
  • Agency – the artifacts we choose to value cannot be forced upon us, but must be constructed to respond to our needs. They serve us. We are the masters of what we consume.
  • Satisfaction of desire – the artifacts we value most are those that fulfill our emotional needs – whether it’s an iPod or a medical treatment. The criterion for success is desire fulfillment, not truth or beauty.
  • Ownership – We possess what we purchase – and can interpret the meanings of any artifact as we see fit, not as the maker determines.

So what does all this have to do with science and rubber wristbands?

The scientific black box is mute in terms of emotions and desires. It delivers answers – it doesn’t fulfil needs. But the wider world is teeming with unfulfilled desires waiting to be satisfied. Power Balance is a consumer business. It makes money by giving consumers what they desire. Like the rest of the public, it greatly values the products of the scientific black box. But like the wider public, it is not encouraged to develop any deep obligation towards the truth of what science makes – only the value of what is delivered. And because science is electively mute on the emotional value of its artifacts, it leaves a vacuum which is filled by the purveyors and interpreters of desire – the consumer, and the companies that seduce them. The ownership that consumerism ultimately breeds then encourages purveyors like Power Balance to appropriate scientific phraseology in order to sell its wares.

Science has long demonstrated a power to answer our needs. It is a great “brand”. But consumerism tells us that we can own the brands we desire, and what we own can be freely interpreted and manipulated to fulfil our personal needs. Therefore if the claims of a product don’t accord with strict scientific fact, consumerists can simply construct better “facts” about the product which address these public desires. Its not so much about lying, as about selecting a more convenient truth.

This rubber wristband sells because it suggests a convenient scientific scenario that the public responds to. The extent of consumer desire, a little wishful thinking and celebrity endorsement paper over cracks in the scientific language and evidence. Everybody is happy – except science. And if your claims should begin to be probed a little too closely by science, the law or journalism? No problem. Simply issue a careful disclaimer.

Is this morally and ethically hazardous? Absolutely! But then who ever said desire was about the truth?

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