The New Materialism
“Instagrams popularity is the result of the same impulses so masterfully harnessed by social psychologists in what many would call the worlds most addicting role-playing game: World of Warcraft. Now that never-ending and always rewarding pursuit of a more powerful pixilated alter-ego is available to the unaltered-ego and in socially acceptable form. The ‘level 24 Orc Hunter’ becomes the ‘24-year-old business professional’ accruing experiences and suits instead of experience-points and armor. Only Instagram has far more potential because its currency is valuable to broad society instead of a small group of about 10 million loyal subscribers.” – A Wise Man
The ‘west’s’ consumer culture is witnessing the beginning of an evolutionary chapter as its materialist foundations begin to change. With the ‘myth of equal opportunity’ eroding, material wealth’s role as an indicator of social value has begun to decline as well, however, the material obsession remains just as potent as it becomes disguised in less tangible form. The things one does, sees and knows are increasingly becoming seen as a source of social value and personal fulfillment. The rise of this ‘intellectual-materialism’ is becoming increasingly apparent through social networking applications and the use of camera phones in what is essentially the commoditization of experience.
Lets begin with the evolution of modern materialism.
The consumer era began with the abrupt and dramatic increase in the supply of manufactured goods brought on by the industrial revolution. This resulted in a demand gap that was not automatically filled by the religious and modest masses of the preindustrial age. In order to facilitate demand for the supply explosion the process of ‘constructing the consumer’ began. A boom in advertising and the birth of marketing studies began the process of creating the consumer society of today.
Building modern consumer culture proved to be unbelievable successful in the fertile ground that was the United States. The American emphasis on socio-political equality and equal opportunity, coupled with an empirically inspired decline in religious gratification, made the rise of an intensely materialistic culture inevitable. Propagandists heralded it as a millstone in human history, the American Dream, for the first time in western civilization anyone could climb the social ladder with nothing but hard work. This newfound equality before law removed institutionalized class barriers and a hierarchy based solely on wealth began to grow. The ‘myth of equal opportunity’ and economic mobility became so established in the American psyche ones ability to accrue wealth came to be seen as directly representative of their inherent ability and even their value as a person. The roots of materialism were sown as possessions began to replace religion as the dominant source meaning and motivation.
Through the efforts of the socio-economic elite and a polarizing encounter with communism, the status quo was preserved and the myth persisted long after it had become stunningly obvious it was indeed a myth. During the cold war, nationalism became equated with capitalism and the rhetoric of American consumerist culture was propagandized to an unbelievable extent. Even among the more educated the American Dream was far from myth.
The maturation of the post-Cold War generations and the recent economic downturns have finally begun eroding the illusion of opportunity, but interestingly enough, it has not resulted in a decline in materialism. Even as the younger generations realize their position is a more a product of circumstance than ability, with no alternative, they still cling to an evolving materialism instead of departing it.
Enter Instagram, the incredibly popular social networking site that serves as a digital posting board for camera phone inspired photographs. Through photography the materialist is able to turn experiences into a tangible and accruable form, making Instagram into a digital avatar for what essentially amounts to real life ‘experience points’. But Instagram can do even better. Not only does it eternalize your awesomeness for all your friends to see, but through its integrated photoshop, it can even enhances them, making you–sorry, I mean your experiences–seem even more glamorous than they really are. As GoPro Cameras marketing department so astutely realized, everyone wants to “Be a HERO” and now the status of adventure celebrity is no longer reserved for the well-funded expedition. Social networks and camera phones allow anyone to feel like the badass they see on TV even if the only network who will take them are their friends’ news feeds.
But lets not get started on blogs…
Intentionally by some and unintentionally by most, experiences are now being used as indicators of self and social esteem and creating a revolution in consumer culture in the process. Our numerous digital avatars are essentially becoming online resumes for the vast majority of social interactions. Billions have unknowingly become human resource professionals as it becomes increasingly easy to get to know someone without actually meeting them.
Of course, when it actually comes to human resources it is completely necessary to commoditize those resources, but should we wary of heading down a road to what essentially amounts to the commoditization of people on even the most basic social level. These changes and their ramifications are hard to perceive for the older generations who matured before the social network boom and still see the online identity as separate and distinct, but as those generations raised on smart phones and Facebook increasingly come into their own we will see online identities further augmenting the very sense of self.
While the departure to ‘intellectual-materialism’ is definitely a harbinger of some kind of progress but it still demonstrates how far society still is from escaping the confines of an unsustainable mentality of meaning and motivation. Cloaking the materialist obsession though the commoditization of experience will ensure it remains influential and destructive. The intense materialism of the past century allowed the demand fueled warp drive that is the free market to unbelievable achievement but it has also damaged the break cables in the process. ‘Material success’ is only realized relative to ones peers and thus the world now competes in a race which will never end, as the racers only attempt to beat each other, not reach any finish line. As long as the material, in its obvious and abstract forms, remains the central source of fulfillment, humanity will never be able to find a sustainable equilibrium within the confines of a finite environment… and spaceship earth is becoming oh so finite these days.
Unless we start building real spaceships we had better start reconsidering why we do what we do, but then again, it’s no secrete why cattle prods and corrals are used instead of words of reason when a bull begins its rampage.