You work to buy the perfect gift, but you don’t get the satisfaction of knowing your work made another human being happy. Unless you were given direction as to what to buy, which would have made your work infinitely easier, more likely than not the receiver of the gift is not going to like it. The very surplus of goods we enjoy has allowed each one of us to develop needs so idiosyncratic that only certain brands, and the stories they tell, can satisfy any lack we might happen to feel. We are as finicky as house cats, turning up our noses as everything that doesn’t fit the idea we have of ourselves, an idea made as superficially complex and arcane as a volley of text messages.
Consumerism can make you happy. It has rectified the age-old problem of the self’s division from the world. For in consumerism’s simulated world, in the constant stream of advertisements whose narratives have become as familiar and comforting as bedtime stories, the gap between life and essence is closed. This gives some of us a peace of mind that hasn’t been enjoyed since antiquity when, as theorist Georg Lukács writes, “the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature of the stars.” The world created by consumerism is a world where meaning is once again immanent, and the devoted consumer need never wonder how in purchasing a certain item she can make reality conform to her desires and her desires conform to that reality.
Richman co-opts the function of ads and turns it inside out. He’s offering an endorsement that does no one but himself any good (I like them because they fit me) , and he’s undermining the premises of ordinary ads’ endorsements, showing that a product need not make you feel superior to others to satisfy — that a product should make you gloat about it, not about yourself for buying it.
Though Facebook’s “Like” button may be good news for big business, it’s dreary stuff for people who actually … well … like things, because watered-down liking has changed our relationship to the world in the way that marketing, a few decades earlier, changed our relationship to consumer items. With marketing’s advent, the world suddenly fell in love with the idea rather than the utility of things; with a stroke of the ad-man’s magic pen, an automobile, that greasy machine with four wheels intended to get man (or woman) from point A to B, turned into a means of orgiastic celebration, and a carton of orange juice, the sweet fluid of squashed citrus pulp, magically transmogrified into an elixir capable of curing everything from cancer to crabs.
Botsman and Rogers’ championing business as the solution to the social problems business has created is certainly pragmatic, but it feels a bit like surrender, an admission that the institutions of consumerism and their motivational apparatus can’t be bettered, and that they will continue to constitute our lifeworld. The authors can’t be faulted for their unmistakable enthusiasm for mitigating the selfish individualism that consumerism inherited from capitalism’s early days. But their vision stops far short of the kind of transformation that could make “sharing” and “collaboration” into something other than marketing buzzwords again.
By facilitating the process by which goods cycle through meanings, we start to function like little advertising agencies, sending out marketing messages of our own, with our personality as the medium and our friends as the audiences whose attention we broker. We consume the identity that we hope the goods will convey in the process of broadcasting it to others. The greater the scope of our broadcast, the quicker the goods exhaust their signifying potency for us. We then need a new message to send, new consumer goods to send them with.
The automated platforms we are using to be social cannot recognize nuances of trust or the situational ethics of disclosure. It only understands on or off. It fails to distinguish between contexts; its uniformity across the network is designed to eliminate the existence of context. The context is presumed always to be self-presentation; as far as the platforms are concerned, any information given is divulged precisely because it will be attached to the divulging person’s record. It recognizes no other function. It relates data to a user and stores it.
We outsourced to the people we share with the work of assembling who we are, as they are invited to sort through the data and see only the person they want to see, brushing past the details they deem irrelevant, scanning and responding just as rapidly as one sorts through an interminable list of Facebook updates. As we grow accustomed to sharing everything to everyone as a default, a new and unprecedented kind of public identity will begin to be fashioned for us: the garbage-dump self. We pile up the information about ourselves out in the open for everyone to see, and our followers, like the dustmen in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, scramble about the heap looking for useful bits among the dross.
Consumerism has the capability now of fixing us in a particular position in a class hierarchy while stifling any discontent we might have had at being so fixed. Social class remains palpable and lived in, everywhere obvious yet at the same time elusive and implicit, deviously flexible. Because its meanings are always changing, because our own identity becomes so fluid within it, the code permits us to believe that we are always on the cusp of inclusion, or perhaps worse, that we are where it’s at rather than right where they want us. It serves up so many modes for making distinctions for ourselves that we can always believe we are atop the pile that matters specifically to us, allowing the fact we are at the bottom of other piles that matter more broadly to society to seem less troublesome.
Though it’s tempting to indulge oneself in the twilight of mindless consumerism, to party like it’s (still) 1999, to do so, I’ve come to realize, is to engage in folly. Misinformation abounds, and the only way to navigate the treacherous waters of the current political situation is … well … to pay attention and to exercise discernment. For we’ve entered that stage where the electronic equivalent of propaganda pamphlets are falling from the sky like so many spent locusts. Perhaps it’s time, then, to bid adieu to a world that doesn’t seem like it’s coming back any time soon. One of those pesky historical shifts has occurred these past few years. What lies ahead is anyone’s guess.