It’s hard to consume any kind of media and not identify some form of rejection of consumerism. Global capitalism, for all its virtues, has propelled our world into a direction that has seemingly far more casualties than it does benefactors. One needs only to turn to the global ecological crisis or the debt nightmare in Europe to see casualties mount as democracy, rule of law and climate all fall victim to the persistence of chasing endless growth.
What is especially interesting is looking at the role and effects that technology has had in the development of the current state of affairs. On one side we have the obvious acceleration technology has had on global capitalization, driving efficiencies, profitability and scale. Its cost, the massive disintermediation of a workforce in which global capitalization requires to exist. On the other side we have a new emergent, internet-based system that is beginning to take on its own identity, beliefs and characteristics. This emergent, internet-based “system” is comprised of platforms, lack of scarcity, community and permissions. In essence, technology destroys and creates through its very existence.
This dichotomy of destruction and creation is fairly unique to technology and while many may attribute it to capitalism’s “creative destruction” I would argue that its pace and scale have yielded an outcome that is non-capitalistic in nature. In fact, I would go as far as to categorize that technology, specifically Internet-based technology, as the most un-capitalistic manifestation that capitalism has ever had. It is a system that gives you all the benefits of capitalistic consumerism without the costs associated with consumerism. It also features a new way version of psychological fulfillment that is usually reserved for good old capitalistic consumerism.
The psychology of consumerism is a long-studied phenomenon with perspectives ranging from the most symbolic with Baudrillard’s theory of simulation to the most practical with Oprah’s retail therapy. With a light examination of the key epochs of consumerism we see an evolution from the early days of utility to the “keeping up with the Jones’” phenomenon and now into a mild anti-consumerist, consumerism with eco products (Seventh Generation) and charity brands (Tom’s, OXFAM). The slow path to the rejection of consumerism seems obvious but it leads to an obvious but difficult question: Can we have consumerism without the consumption costs? I think this is where Internet technology comes in.
If the primary motivations of consumerism are the exchange of symbols, the development of identity and a new cultural network of controls we can easily find these being satisfied online. In fact, with technology we can see an interesting new form of consumerism take shape based on permissions, access and platforms. While hegemonic tendencies still exist online the proliferation of available networks yield probably one of the most equitable societal exchanges that has ever come to be. Access is rarely restricted and the costs associated are a bunch of 1’s, 0’s, some connection costs and a crap-ton of energy. But these are much more palatable problems then riots, ecological disasters, economic crisis’s and traditional class struggles. In fact, class struggles may soon be less based on the ability for one to consume and much more about the amount of access one has.
While it is highly unlikely that technology will fully be able to replace consumerism in the immediate term the prospects of a less volatile and costly version of consumerism is still somewhat appealing. And while the psychological controls and hostilities may still exist in a tech-utopian consumerist world it would be hard to argue with the inherent benefit of a kind of consumerism without the destructive physical costs associated with it.