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Consumerism and Self

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University


Do you understand yourself as “American?” Is “American” a large part of your identity, of who you think you are? Or do you understand yourself through other things—maybe your family, your religion? Or do you understand yourself primarily through the things you prefer to buy—that you like this kind of music, or this or that band, or prefer your clothes from a certain store? Perhaps you're a vegetarian, or buy organic foods? Perhaps you're a sports fan, and buy products that identify you with the sports you like? Some scholars argue that consumption has become the primary way we understand ourselves--that literally, “we are what we buy.”

It's possible—a possibility this exercise will explore—that this tendency is eroding our sense of citizenship. New technologies—the internet, direct mail, TV copying services like Tivo or ReplayTV—allow us to spend less and less time looking at things other people like, and more time doing things people like ourselves like. If we are increasingly able to form communities based on our exact preferences and tastes, will we lose the ability to co-exist as a larger nation? For an example of what the future might look like if we were only defined by our consumer choice, read these excerpts from Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk science fiction novel Snow Crash:

Stephenson imagines a world where the United States of America has largely vanished, replaced by “burbclaves” and “franchulates” each of which offers citizenship for a fee. All functions of the government—highway construction, defense, police, mail delivery—have been privatized, made into commercial operations. An ethic of intense competition prevails.

It seems reasonable to suppose that in the future, communities based on consumer preference will replace membership in nations or tribes—that you will belong to “The United Colors of Benetton” or to the community of Phish fans, or an international community of mountain bikers, or drivers of VW Jettas, or whatever your personal preferences may be. A quick Google search for “mountain bikers, association” turned up hundreds of sites, including the following:

This very brief list suggests the extent of the community of mountain bikers. These people share a set of interests—in certain consumer products, in certain activities; they share a set of political interests and beliefs about access to the natural world, about exercise, about health. They share far more than do the many people who are otherwise united under the flag of the United States.

Modern technology allows them to be targeted more precisely by advertisers, who in turn argue that people tend to form communities with people like themselves. Will such forms of marketing make it harder and harder to live with those who disagree with us? Harder to form “nations,” which unite us not according to lifestyle preference, but according to political beliefs?

Updated | April 2004