Consumerism // Devaluing the Human Spirit
Consider the ways in which an average American consumer unwinds after the rush hour drive home from work: perhaps they watch a favorite television show, peruse EBay for some deals, connect with friends over Facebook, or swing by the mall for dinner and a bit of shopping. While these actions may appear as distinct choices on the part of the consumer, they have all been presented, rather advertised, to the consumer, as ideal ways to resuscitate oneself from the throws of boredom. According to Zygmunt Bauman, the modern economy thrives on “making the individuals wish to do what the system needs them to do for it to reproduce itself” (Bauman, 149). Following suit, nearly all of the leisure activities available to this supposed consumer involve either the purchase and consumption of a good, a service, or information, or the presentation of a new consumable to be desired. While the rapid consumption of goods, accompanied with the cycling of capital and material resources, certainly yields wondrous effects on the economy, bolstering GDP, many sociologists, including Bauman and Juliet Schor, would argue that the tradeoffs for such a fast paced economy, the devaluation of the human spirit, devastation of the environment, and redefinition of happiness by consumption, are certainly not worth any supposed gains, and that a slower path would be more favorable.
While one of Bauman’s biggest critiques of consumerism is how it compels individuals to define their happiness by consumption, he also attacks the consumerist society for revaluing perceptions of time, suggesting that in the setting of liquid modernity, only lifelong education can resuscitate freedom of choice. In the consumerist society, Bauman argues that it is “the others who count, and whose approval or rejection draws the line between success and failure”, painting a picture of a consumer whose ego is tightly bound to others perceptions of her or himself, preparing to jump at any opportunity to raise one’s social status (Bauman, 144). He further suggests that “the society of consumers derives its animus and momentum from the disaffection it itself expertly produces”, pointing to the assaults of advertisements on any potential flaw in character, image or lifestyle present in the viewer (Bauman, 171). While the consumerist society begins by attacking insecurities, “there is a latent message behind every commercial promising a new unexplored opportunity for bliss”, urging the potential consumer to redeem their faults through consumption (Bauman, 173). Through the creation of prior unseen “needs, urges, compulsions, and addictions”, the consumerist economy must rely on excess and waste, constantly cycling consumables, material and informational, from the producer, to consumer, to landfill (Bauman, 161). To Bauman, the consumerist economy asks individuals to degrade themselves to the role of ‘consumers’, defining their well being through the act of consumption, ever enslaved to the nudges of advertisements and the perceptions of ‘the others’.
However, in addition to demanding the natural resources of the planet to feed the rapid cycling of consumables, “in the cut-throat competition for that scarcest of scarce resources, the attention of would-be consumers, the suppliers of would-be consumer goods desperately search for the scraps of consumers' time still lying fallow, for the tiniest gaps between moments of consumption that could still be stuffed with more information” (Bauman, 163). By attempting to wedge advertisements and consumable information into these tiny increments of time, the consumerist economy revalues the social perception of time, implying usefulness to the smallest increments, insisting every moment counts and must be counted. Bauman sees the restructuring of time perceptions, along with the rapid cycling of consumables and trends, as major factors creating what he coins, ‘the hurried life’.
While many may see the advantages of a ‘hurried life’, citing increased GDP, economic growth, and a rise in average income, many “highly developed, well-off countries with consumption-driven economies have not become happier as they've grown richer and as consumerist preoccupations and activities have grown more voluminous.” (Bauman, 168). As Bauman puts it, “Liquid modernity is a civilization of excess, redundancy, waste, and waste disposal”, a civilization built on “a landscape of ignorance in which it is easy to feel lost and hapless – and easier yet to be lost and hapless without feeling it.” (Bauman, 185, 192). Recall the example of the average American consumer, while this individual can make choices between cycling, television, or shopping, between being a firefighter, lawyer, or priest, “making choices is obligatory, and the limits on what you are allowed to choose are nonnegotiable” (Bauman, 145). In the societal system of liquid modernity, choices which enforce consumption are encouraged while opportunities for true creativity, for craft and critical making, are relegated to a design elite. Bauman argues that only lifelong education, an education which constantly adapts to the ever-changing circumstances of liquid modernity, can provide individuals with the tools to create their own choices and separate their ego’s from the judgments of ‘the others’. In a society driven by consumerism, a society of choice-less individuals defined by ‘the other’ living ever more hurried lives, “we need lifelong education to give us choice. But we need it even more to salvage the conditions that make choice available and within our power.” (Bauman, 193).
While Bauman provides an excellent critique of consumerism, Juliet Schor, with her concept of ‘plenitude’, presents a solution to repair the broken systems of modern society. Schor argues that individuals need strong alternatives to the consumption oriented options already present in the market, advocating for “building a well-designed and expanding clean sector, with the right mechanisms and incentives in place to move people and resources into it” (Schor, 145). In the new clean sector, Schor envisions a multitude of small corporations, full of “agility, dynamism, and entrepreneurial determination”, creating open source innovations to be distributed over the internet and manufactured through entirely local channels (Schor, 156). Rather than relying on monetary incentives and patents to encourage innovation, Schor insists that “open source process allows new knowledge to be transmitted rapidly among networked individuals and small groups who are motivated to provide value and save the planet” (Schor, 152).
With a new form of spreading innovation and manufacturing in the green economy, Schor believes people will be required to work far fewer hours, creating “enhanced value in a pattern of work and leisure that gives people enough free time to participate” in the distributed process of creativity and innovation (Schor, 152). Additionally, as plenitude lifestyles reclaim time, rather than relying on consumables to nourish the human spirit and create a sense of individuality and connection, “people can reinvigorate their social connections, build community, and work together on investments in local and regional ecosystems” (Schor, 161). In the scope of local investments, Schor stresses projects focused on environmental restoration and investing in the natural resources and ecosystem functions of local communities. Furthermore, Schor sees a shift away from the “destructive activities” of the consumerist economy as individuals, in their renewed free time and with a host of new options for leisure and creativity, will “be growing with intelligence, expanding the things that truly give [them] health and benefit, and shifting out of destructive activities” (Schor, 173). Plenitude, the rise in free time and distributed creativity through the restructuring of the economy to focus on small, dynamic companies and open-source innovation, particularly focused “repairs our fractured lives, heals our souls, and can make us truly wealthy in ways that have little to do with money and consumption… It promises to restore the bounty and beauty of our miraculous planet and all its inhabitants” (Schor, 184).
At a fundamental level, the opinions and ideas of Bauman and Schor are incredibly relevant to modern society. The consumerist economy has become a giant machine, transforming functioning ecosystems into ‘consumables’, units of material or information which are intended to soothe the human spirit into complacency, opening the mind to accept the next dosage of ego-boosting ‘consumable’. Not only is liquid modernity unsustainable on a planet of limited matter, it is incredibly unhealthy for humanity, preventing individuals from truly satisfying their needs by nudging them towards rapidly shifting, consumable ego boosts. Given the current state of the environment, and the truth that increased wealth and consumption does not truly lead to happiness, it is past time that the modern economy was reconsidered (Schor, 177). While Bauman provides some excellent, though rather zealous, criticism, and Schor an excellent vision of how a clean, healthy economy could function, beyond warning of the dangers of a rapid deceleration, neither thinker embellishes on how such a revolution could take place. Given Schor’s focus on small-scale, decentralized innovation as a key tenant of plenitude, along with Bauman’s view of education and creativity as a means of resuscitating the human spirit, it would only be pertinent that design and designers can play a key role in reshaping the hurried life, in creating an economy that puts people truly before profits. Beyond creating the green and slow-paced alternatives to consumables mentioned by Schor, designers can begin utilizing local and distributed production networks, and, perhaps most importantly, elect to relinquish ownership of their own creations for the benefit of disseminating innovation through open-source networks (which designers can, and do, play a part in creating in the first place). Regardless of the means, just as it has done in the past, the profession of design must rally to pave the way towards the new future.
Bauman and Schor provide an unabashed critique of consumerism, citing the loss of true choice, the redefinition of happiness through consumption, the revaluation and changing perception of time, and the devastation of the environment. Furthermore, Schor suggests that the solution to restructuring the economy lies in disseminating innovation and manufacturing through small-scale, local, and open-source networks, as well as providing alternatives to the spirit devaluing consumables currently supporting liquid modernity. Regardless of the path to Schor’s plenitude, design will play an important role in shaping the future economy. Most importantly, designers must be cautious to avoid the same base tricks, the uncanny nudges and exploitative logic, which defines the economy of the present.
"Not only is liquid modernity unsustainable on a planet of limited matter, it is incredibly unhealthy for humanity, preventing individuals from truly satisfying their needs by nudging them towards rapidly shifting, consumable ego boosts."
Bauman, Zygmunt. Does Ethics Have A Chance In A World Of Consumers? / Zygmunt Bauman. n.p.: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2008., 2008. Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
"Plenitude: The New Economics Of True Wealth." Publishers Weekly 257.7 (2010): 122. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.