Allow me to dive into the vault of classic film and borrow from an iconic retail drama. Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) follows the journey of Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), who loves to shop. The trouble is, she shops so much that she is drowning in debt. It boggles the mind. How can a $20 scarf -- a purchase the main character wants to make on her way to a job interview -- be declined on all of her credit cards? What kind of a person is that maxed out?
Fast-forward 10 years. In our late-stage capitalism world, consumption is our obligation, our job. Rebecca Bloomwood - the shopping “addict” - is simply doing her job. If we pull back the economy will falter, causing untold suffering to ourselves and others. Therefore the responsibility for propping up the economy falls squarely on our shoulders, as we are reminded daily.
Our consumer-based society has a dirty little secret: it kind of sucks. Consumption has replaced retail, and it isn’t fun. In fact, it’s an exhausting burden that few of us can see a way out. Rebecca Bloomwood isn’t alone, we’re all slaves to consumption.
Shopping used to be fun, of course. Back in the early twentieth century, department stores emerged as more than just a convenience; they were places for socialization. And before the rise of Walmart, most people in America shopped locally, and “marketing” was more than just picking up acquiring life’s necessities, it was about interacting with neighbors and hearing the latest gossip. Now we only go to the mall if we feel like we have no other option or if for some weird reason it’s convenient.
The forces that led to commoditization and national chains have been well documented. Retail specialization, cheap transport, supply chain optimization, consolidation, and e-commerce are just some of the factors that combined to offer consumers unprecedented choice and low prices. Consumers never had it so good. Interestingly, it’s also the time we began to think of ourselves as consumers first, and middle- or working-class citizens second. Consumer identity transcended nationalities, borders, class. What we buy makes us who we are.
Today, consumerism is the major driver of the American economy, accounting for 68% of the economy. As a nation, our economic success is judged based on how much we spend, and the stakes are high. Public pension plan managers invest in private equity and venture capital firms who acquire national retail chains and deliver stellar returns. In fact, investors in retail chains generally demand amazing returns, which means it’s the consumer’s job to meet their expectations.
They have plenty of help. The most sophisticated advancements in consumption -- programmatic advertising, social media algorithms that activate FOMO impulses, 24/7 data collection to predict what we’re doing now and what we can be convinced to buy, technology that allows us to buy anytime day or night -- thwart our free will. An incredible amount of brainpower and technology have been deployed to ensure we consume.
Social media is depressing
Social media was supposed to be a way for us to connect with the world, share information about our lives and catch up with the goings-on of friends and family. Instagram, in particular, was a refuge, a place where we could live the lives we aspire to and hopefully achieve. But now that it is fully monetized, with beautiful influencers promoting precious products by precious brands, it’s become another megaphone telling consumers to open their wallets.
Is it any wonder that consumers rate it the worst social media platform for one’s mental health and well-being? A platform that’s associated with anxiety, depression, and FOMO?
But that’s late-stage capitalism for you. Consumption is everything, whether that’s shopping for the hippest earbuds or binge-watching the newest Netflix series. It can activate dopamine rushes, keep us up all night watching the next episode, and even make us believe that the perfect life is possible if only we can land the exclusive, perfect deal. Just don’t expect it to be restful or peaceful.
How did retail morph from joy to toil?
As retail grew in economic importance – and as investors demanded higher returns – the best minds in data science, psychology, technology, art, economics, among many other disciplines were deployed to change (control?) our behavior.
It’s no accident that we feel pressured to buy. Dark patterns are deployed to create a sense of urgency, and to tap into deep evolutionary impulses to acquire stuff before scarcity sets in. Online retailers aren’t being helpful when their product pages say: “Order now, only 4 left in stock.” They want you to buy before you have a chance to consider whether or not the purchase is right for you.
It’s also no accident that when you splurge on a purchase, say a mid-century modern couch, fancy art catalogs suddenly show up in your mailbox, or conversely, when you reach the limit on a credit card, offers for consumer debt consolidation loans arrive daily. It’s not paranoia, there really are a lot of people monitoring you, and planning the best tactics to deploy to affect your behavior.
The other major bummer about consumption is debt. As of June 2019, the average US household had $8,398 in credit card debt. That's $1.07 trillion in total credit card debt! The average adult owes $5,839, which obviously can dampen one’s peace of mind. We’re in over our heads and the retargeting ads and installment payment platforms of the world tell us “it’s okay, spend more, you don’t want to miss out, do you?”
This is what it’s come down to?
Phillip argued in INSIDERS #008 that we live in an age of constant digital surveillance that is tuning a machine to get ever-better at predicting our ability to be manipulated, then using that information to nudge us to consume. His argument: we’re slowly being automated into consumers whose job is solely to keep the machine of our capitalist economy running. Perhaps he’s right. (This argument had him branded as an ecommerce nihilist, and he has since updated his LinkedIn profile accordingly.)
Perhaps the joy of finding and obtaining goods is gone. Finding products that get us to unplug and connect with others. Now the products we obtain, in turn, cause us to need to obtain more.
So that’s it. Now it’s work. Now it’s our job. This is our lot.
What are you waiting for? Get back to work!