Between & Beyond: Consumption

The late great Terence McKenna once said, “We have to create culture: don’t watch TV; don’t read magazines; don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about [celebrities] or [politicians] or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media. And we are told… we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”

Currently I am working a summer job to pay my bills between semesters when I can teach. The summer job is for a guy who runs his own eBay shop. He buys stuff at county auctions and turns them around on eBay. My role is to help him sort through the stuff and get it up online. I take the pictures. I write the descriptions. I research the market value.

My boss is probably in his early 50s. He’s a very traditional guy from the Bronx. It’s an attitude I’m familiar with as my mom is from the Bronx too. But, there’s a sort of sedentary quality to his personality. He’s set in his ways and while he may arrive at deeper understanding from time to time it’s almost always through circuitous routes. I like him. He reminds me of people I have deep connections to, and I imagine that’s the same reason he hired me.

Often, when we are hunting down the value of a certain item, it turns up that in fact it’s rather worthless. Nine times out of 10, it’s some obsolete piece of technology. His response is pretty much always, “What a shame.” This could be easily mocked or dismissed as a statement from someone who, as I said, is set in his ways, isn’t up to speed with the advancements in technology, and is holding on to some kind of nostalgia. I mean, indeed, the man is still running Windows XP. But he’s right. It is a shame.

These are the bones of a dying world. Of course, my boss doesn’t go that far. But he does have some kind of genuine understanding that something is not right here. We’ve blazed through almost six decades of a consumer whirlwind where the next greatest object for your life has finally arrived time and time again. And each time, it was built out of a piece of the earth. And each time still, it will return to the earth but transmuted, unable to reintegrate in a meaningful way. What if we only built things that had meaning for both us and the earth at the same time? When the deeds of man serve profit, the earth is bound to suffer. When the deeds of man serve the earth, that inescapable symbiosis can thrive.

Back in the ’90s, it seemed as if consumer culture was unraveling again similar to the way it was threatened in the ’60s. The culmination could be seen as the success of Fight Club, but soon after a technological revolution swept over us and the entire playing field was changed. These days, it seems no longer an issue. We can choose which ads we want to see, and if an ad is funny enough, like in the case of Old Spice or Dos Equis, we’ll advertise it for you.

The only hope is that it seems like there are cycles built into these cultural trends. The consumer excess of the ’50s and ’80s seemed to have spawned the reactions of the ’60s and the ’90s. The internet is poised to be the platform through which the next great effort to flip over the energy of our culture into a more harmonious frequency could take place. But we’ve already let it slip. While it helped blossom Occupy Wall Street onto the tongue of our culture, the predominant modes of the internet sustain and glorify consumer culture, and there’s something even more sinister afoot. We’ve lost the transparency once inherent to the internet. The internet has become a one-way mirror. We stand absolutely naked before the content providers, while their practices, their methods of selling our nakedness, and their strategies for providing content remain as opaque as ever. The recent changes to Facebook are more than just a layout change. More clickbait stories are log-jamming my feed than ever before. They come in because someone else decided to “like” them or click them, not willfully post them. Our dopamine-fueled affinity for personality quizzes and Top 36 lists are being pumped into our friends’ feeds not by our own will but by mindless consumption. It’s become a consumption echo-chamber where we no longer even consume goods, but ephemeral content, and somewhere someone is making a quick buck on the our admission into the freak show. We’ve allowed for a creation of a man behind the curtain. He is pulling our strings.