Tag Archives: consumerism

A Blessing In Demise

This post previously published here.

We are told to exercise, to improve the quality of our lives, to above all be happy. We buy a Fitbit. It counts our steps, checks our vitals, monitors our sleep cycles. We become health-conscious consumers of physical exhaustion. Life, no longer a spiritual journey, becomes the quest to outrun a gurney.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves: the final goal of science and technology is to exterminate death. It may take forever, but future generations of scientists will risk their lives to get dying under control.

Are we not heading towards a man-made eternity without God? Are we not destined to create a permanent Heaven on Earth that would put to rest all hope of an afterlife?

We must resist the consumerist imperative to buy ourselves more time at all costs. Accept death as a devastating act of mercy. A blessing in demise.

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The Empathy Of Communication

In The Pathology of Communicative Capitalism, David W. Hill alerts us to the power of empathy, a skill under siege in the digital age:

“Empathy is a craft of understanding and responding to other people. It requires attentive communication, listening to others, and responding to the other person such that communication progresses whilst keeping the differences between interlocutors intact, so constituting a meaningful encounter since the other person is met on his or her own terms. Is there any time left for this kind of empathetic communication? Is there any space available?” (50)

I asked similar questions in my book, The Intimacy of Communication, earlier this year, wondering aloud if there’s “space for intimacy in a hyper-connected world.” It’s nice to see I’m not the only writer concerned about smartphone addiction in what’s known today as the attention economy.

Empathy is not extinct, of course, but it’s definitely not trending on Twitter. It’s hard to connect with humans across the table from us when our heads are buried in our smartphones. I can’t recognize your uniqueness or meet you on your own terms on a first date, for instance, when I’m lost in thoughtlessness on Facebook.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, I admit I’m worried about kids these days, the cohort known as Generation Z. Gen Z follows Gen Y, also called millennials, which follows Gen X. Anyone born after 2001, the theory goes, is part of Generation Z. Given we’ve reached the end of the alphabet, I hope we haven’t reached the end of the evolutionary line.

The more I see kids attached to electronic devices, the more I sense we’ve been invaded by Generation Zombie. Rather than pick their parents’ brains for knowledge or existential templates for approaching the world, Gen Z wants to eat them. They know everything, in screenshot form. They’re born digital consumers browsing through history, with no concern for the past. “No ideas,” to invoke the spirit of poet William Carlos Williams, “but in images of images of things.”

You can’t empathize with an avatar when you’re trying to kill it, even if the human behind it is your best friend in real life. Pretty soon the character of empathy will be harder to find than the rarest Pokémon.

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Invisible Plastic Shovels

In Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading, Victoria Grace takes politics to the playground. Liberals and conservatives are like children fighting over broken toys in a wet sandbox—punching, slapping, and kicking each other where the sun don’t shine. Our wounds are real but these battles are nothing more than simulated political sideshows trending before they (never really) happen.

While some push for a wall to prevent illegals from stealing American jobs and receiving Social Security benefits, in 2015 the income levels of the top 1% reached a new high while the bottom 99% posted incremental gains.

Migrant workers have clearly rigged tax laws in their favor.

While some insist that Obama is coming for our guns, suicide rates in the United States surged to a 30-year high in 2014, with more than 50% of all cases involving firearms.

Guess Obama missed those homes.

While some label climate change a hoax, a recent study says we can expect the oceans to rise between 2.5 and 6.5 feet by 2100, enough to swamp cities across the east coast.

Millions of Americans drowning in debt will slowly drown in their easy chairs.

There’s a common enemy here. To paraphrase James Carville, the Ragin’ Cajun democratic strategist: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Long before economics became a science, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. In it Smith refers to the Invisible Hand that guides self-interested citizens in their relentless pursuit of objects, property and status. When hardworking entrepreneurs utilize laissez-faire economic policies to increase their bottom lines, society as a whole benefits. Free markets magically improve lives and deliver us from the evils of bloated government bureaucracies.

So much has changed since 1776. Smith knew nothing of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, junk bonds, adjustable rate mortgages, or tax-evading multinational corporations defined as people.

There’s a dark side to global capitalist expansion we can’t deny: greed, excess, a politics of exploitation and exclusion. A blatant disregard for non-human lives and the environment. Poverty, starvation and the spread of disease. Collective despair. Mass incarceration. Soaring anxiety. Obesity. So much obesity. War drones. Amazon drones. Trump Tower. The Clinton Foundation.

One week from the general election it’s a jungle gym out there. As our teachers, parents and legal guardians hang from the monkey bars, we the children fight over invisible plastic shovels in the quicksand that is perpetually now, hyper-connected, consumer capitalism.

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Mandatory Fun

“Free Time,” a 1977 essay by cultural critic Theodor Adorno, examines the relationship between work time and leisure time. We think we’re free when it comes to our free time, Adorno asserts, but leisure is simply an extension of the workday. Even at play, we labor to enjoy ourselves.

The compulsion to consume: we make money in order to spend it on crap we don’t need when we’re not on the clock. Entire industries are dedicated to filling up our leisure time, to satisfy our need for (temporary) freedom. The totality of this process escapes us. Adorno: “Hence the ease with which free time is integrated; people are unaware of how utterly unfree they are, even where they feel most at liberty, because the rule of such unfreedom has been abstracted from them” (191).

Threatened by the specter of boredom, people crave distractions. Adorno holds nothing back in his condemnation of our obsession with the cheap thrills popular culture provides:

People have been refused freedom, and its value belittled, for such a long time that now people no longer like it. They need shallow entertainment, by means of which cultural conservatism patronizes and humiliates them, in order to summon up the strength for work, which is required of them under the arrangement of society which cultural conservatism defends. (193)

The culture industry placates us, snuffs out the faintest flicker of rebellion in the heart of man. Capitalism finds support in a cultural conservatism that reinforces the compulsion to work and spend, work and spend. A “shocking” movie or provocative painting makes no significant political difference after we’ve consumed it. The status quo remains. Tomorrow’s shift awaits.

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Person To Person

“I’m not your magazine
I’m not your television
I’m not your movie screen
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity
I’m not commodity”
—R.E.M.

Like all good little boys raised in the Consumer Society, I was taught to have needs that only capitalism can fulfill. I’m a rational human being free to choose the best detergent, the best cell phone data plan, the best sexual partner. If I work hard enough I can be the Best Me.

We all buy into the myth of purchasing power. You are what you want. You want more. You can have more, and when that’s not enough try having more.

But I don’t know myself in the first place. I have vague ideas, but as Baudrillard writes, “I am definitively other.”

People are mysteries to me, but I’m divided in my own body, my own mind—a mystery to myself. The Consumer Society sees me as a product to be bought and sold, optimized, cleansed of impurities. I must exercise. I must have a family. I must shop incessantly.

I see myself as a commodity because that’s how you see me, and how you see yourself. But deep down I know things aren’t so bleak. There are brief moments when I find self-worth beyond my net worth.

Laughing through tears, Freudian slips, smiling at strangers, falling in love—these are acts of defiance. To admit I’m vulnerable, and recognize your vulnerability as my own—there’s no greater gift than connecting, person to person.

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Dash Bored

Last week Amazon announced a new way to structure our lives around buying shit from Amazon: the Dash button. To avoid a detergent crisis place the Dash with the Tide logo on your washer. When you’re nearing your last load simply press the Dash to order more soap. Of course, you’ll still need to verify the purchase on a smartphone, tablet or (if you’re old-fashioned like me) a laptop.

This is great news for people with busy lives and no time to waste. Sorry, Mr. Keats, but efficiency—not truth—is beauty.

But more free time increases our chances for boredom. To combat consumer angst I hereby announce the Stash button, your on-the-spot vice shop.

Jonesing for chocolate? Stash has teamed with Nabisco, Keebler and Hershey’s to help send you into a diabetic coma at the flick of the wrist.

Down to your last Oxy? Out of Zoloft? Stash knows a guy who knows a guy. With a little help from your friends at Pfizer you’ll be riding the wave in no time.

Traditional porn too soft? Stash has you covered. One click and we’ll deposit thousands of kink links into your spank bank, available for immediate withdrawal.

We’re working with the FDA, FBI and DEA to help smart shoppers secure the best deals on American staples like alcohol, tobacco and firearms. Lawyers and lobbyists (many of whom are lawyers) are pounding the pavement to help you get off.

In this age of over-stimulation there’s no limit to our capacity for numbness. Paper towels are nice, but when life gets messy I’m anxious for a bounty only Stash provides.

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Page Not Found (Refreshed)

I wasn’t happy with my original Page Not Found post from May 7, so I refreshed it and deleted the old one.

***

Books are self-contained bodies of knowledge. Readers searching for deeper connections are free to scan their references and head to the library for more books. This is the tradition of scholarship.

The Internet is a sprawling, image-saturated map with no territory. It leads users on an open-ended quest for pseudoscience, celebrity gossip and mounting piles of pornographic truths.

Books are heavy. The Web is far more mobile.

There are apps today for everything, including one that tests kids’ “logo literacy.” Parts of logos are missing but enough remains for players to recognize the company. This is about purchasing power, and the production of future consumers. Knowledge means finding the best deals before the Joneses pull up in their minivans.

Reading entails patience, context and attention to nuance. Its pleasure is often deferred. Googling is the drive for immediacy, “just the facts.” It’s a data game rigged by clever search engine optimizers in which sources link but nothing clicks.

Consumerist culture is raising a generation of browsers with no history but the accumulation of cache. Few can sit still long enough to digest the news.

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