Consumer culture, consumerism and the act of consuming are no longer things of the outer spheres of life. There might be jungle tribes, aboriginals or people living in remote areas of the world that haven’t gotten the news of consumerism, haven’t used money or any sort of currency, but the prospect of their existence could never qualify as an exception for what we have stated: we all consume, society as a whole is in a way connected to consumerism.
The purpose of this essay is not to state the obvious or reiterate what the paradigm of great philosophers from “the golden age of consumerism”1 have already said. Although there’s no consensus in scholarly articles whether or not there’s one golden age of consumerism, the peak communist production has seen on a profitability and world change scale, as per buildings erected and jobs offered, could hardly be surpassed by the world wide web or even the post-Facebook era. Nonetheless, there are business magazines and news outlets that call the latter and the former the golden ages of consumerism2. The great revolutionary idea of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, Pierre Omidyar, chairman of eBay, and Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook, the idea of letting small businesses and private entities sell goods via locally administered online mega-markets placed the long oxygen deprived small businesses back on the map. That may very well be the new golden age of consumerism!
Regardless, the purpose of this piece is to shine light upon the more and more obscure plots ‘latter day consumerism’ has weaved for its pray. The general air of vagueness and mysticism you see here mirrors the lengths to which magnate companies have gone to sell, on the one hand, and to mould the consumer mind, on the other. The mise-en-abyme reference in the title alludes metaphorically to the foreshadowing of the people in the back of Velasquez’s painting Las Meninas, the imposibility of tracing down the signs or the images in the very last visible replicas of a ‘loopholed’ Droste effect3.
To delve right in, think of jeans, and particularly, think of the pockets on women’s jeans. A study done by Jan Diehm & Amber Thomas4 finds that women’s jeans pockets are 6.5% narrower and 48% shorter. This the authors have linked to the ever so growing 8 billion dollar purse industry – women not having proper space to carry their necessities obviously buy handbags as a direct reaction to their limiting clothing space. This is a classic case of splitting the pie: consumer culture has most of the times employed what in economy we call the long tail strategy56. Instead of selling one big 800-page lengthy tome with $20 you sell 10 eighty-page long shorter books with more or less the same $20 and the profits skyrocket. We see this strategy aptly applied with Netflix. We see it standing triumphantly behind a ‘basic’, ‘anti-consumerist’ WhatsApp. When women’s jeans were designed, back in the 30s and 40s, their pockets were merely decorative. The purse industry filled in the niche (took one slice of the pie). In the 2000s, Facebook’s userbase could be linked to another slice of the pie: phones have grown more and more, women are incapable of stuffing them in their jeans, and because their bags are always filled with day to day personal items, for them to answer a ringing phone in due time they need to hold the bag with one hand and their phones with the other. This leads to more time being spent on mainstream social media apps, like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp (all Mark Zuckerberg’s top trending apps), forcing the other half of the population, the men, to use the same apps to communicate with them. Now saying that women subconsciously luring men to Facebook because they always hold onto their phones in public because their purses aren’t properly compartmented because ultimately their pockets are too small seems ludicrous, but the trends companies like Facebook.inc have patented in little over 15 years are indeed mind blowing. 1 in 5 young Facebook users regularly wake up at night to check their notifications, even in cases when no notification – hence no sound – were there to wake them up7. 70% of Facebook users comment and jump head first into debates – some of which lead to insults and tyranically long reply lists – without going past an article’s title, says The Science Post article8. 59% of the same platform users share an article without actually reading past the title9. We know this through the algorithms that measure how many times something shared has been clicked by the sharers. 59% of the times! The almost 1/2 people actually checking what they’re sharing points to a basic human urge, that of being right, and one could easily say that never throughout history could a person with no clue how real scientific research is conducted pawn off as a connoisseur as today, in the digital era.
Escaping the realm of the virtual reality is so hard nowadays because the nature of our species. What is incumbent of each human being, the need to be socially active, has been twisted into this shallow, time consuming, click-baiting machine that we have learned to call social media. On the producer side of networking apps are psychologists and scientists that interpret trends and devize programming algorithms and app functionalities that, on their own, toy with us and create user recurrence, user addiction (like the particularity of the Facebook notification sound or the sound when someone is typing a message on Facebook, trademark sounds that every app user has embedded in their heads), while on the UX (user experience) side we have a tendency to latch on to the newest app, on to people’s presence, others’ opinions, experience, input. This weakness, as it seems to be some sort of Cinderella effect or another, the desire to test your ideas, your beauty, your popularity, to filter your own person through the eyes of ever so many people, this weakness we’ve come to call inherent vice10. People, seen as social junkies, are as eggs transported on a plane: we’re bound to break, in other words, bound to install an app, bound to consume in some way or another. It is the comfort of sending someone a downloaded picture of a bouquet of flowers on their birthday as opposed to actually going out to the flower market and buying them live plants. The reference to inherent vice shouldn’t be marginal. The idea behind it surfaced in archival practices and served the purpose of explaining how everything written physically on paper eventually decays. Transfer that to the realm of social interractions, transfer that to the act of shopping, to the example of the original light bulbs that would last for a hundred years and would put light bulb factories out of work, create that mental analogy and you’ll have a flash of how consumer society is meant to work. We seem to be living in a world where things are made to be ephemeral so consumers may work, spend, deplete, restock, rinse and repeat.
Le Corbusier’s imperative phrase from Towards a New Architecture, ‘We must create the mass-production spirit, the spirit of living in mass-production houses’11 has been in full effect for decades now. People end up in matchbox living quarters because they start off as poor, then they need to work, access loans, tie themselves more and more to one field of work or another, in order to transgress their crammed up, suffocating, reifying situation and maybe, in their latter years, depending on the type of deadpan work they’ve been subjected to, they can buy a house in the countryside and enjoy a peaceful, relaxing retirement. The mass-production spirit has only stretched the outlines of its intended purpose to encapsulate youngsters, who escaped from the noose of paid television in the 2000s, but who have Netflix now to compensate their lack of consumerism; who had Winamp, a very popular free music player in the 2000s, but have Spotify and Youtube Premium now, where they pay a small, but constant, monthly fee.
As a conclusion, the consu-mise-en-abyme seems never ending. The lengths to which giant corporations, small business owners, hackers, dupers, app developers and even regular Joe’s will go to get money are all encapsulated in the social matrix we live in. Only a highly critical mind can step away from the two front-facing mirrors of the internet and work, and live a low consumption life. Risking a life without social media or a life without objects are not only highly improbable to the modern man and woman, but will be met with peer pressure and ridicule. Someone who doesn’t consume in the .com era might as well forge their own steel, hunt their own animal and make their own clothes. Complete anti-consumerism thus resembles savagery, and what’s left is the weave of social/media construct that we called modernity.
1 Here we’re referring to the 50s and the 60s.
2 Coventry, Elaine (2017). How companies can succeed in the ‘Golden Age of the Consumer’. Retrieved on 1/16/2021, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/04/how-companies-can-succeed-in-the-golden-age-of-the-consumer
3 “a loop which theoretically could go on forever, but realistically only goes on as far as the image’s quality allows”, Nänny, Max; Fischer, Olga (2001). The Motivated Sign: Iconicity in Language and Literature. John Benjamins. p. 37. ISBN 90-272-2574-5.
5 Alpheus Bingham and Dwayne Spradlin (2011). The Long Tail of Expertise. Pearson Education. ISBN 9780132823135.
6 Brown, George W.; Tukey, John W. (1946). Some Distributions of Sample Means. Annals of Mathematical Statistics. Volume 17, Number 1, pages 1-12.
7 Taylor; Francis (2017). One in five young people lose sleep over social media. Retrieved on 1/16/2021, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170116091419.htm
8 SP Team (2018). Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting. Retrieved on 1/16/2021, from http://thesciencepost.com/study-70-of-facebook-commenters-only-read-the-headline/
10 Pearce-Moses, Richard (2012). A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, Entry for Inherent Vice. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved on 1/16/2021, from https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/inherent-vice.html