With Black Friday in recent memory and Christmas shopping right around the corner, what better time to look at the issues of consumerism in our society.
Modern advertising is rather peculiar. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that many of the commercials you come across don’t actually tell you much about the product that is being sold. The advertisement doesn’t present reasons or rational arguments as to why you should buy the product. Rather it appeals to our deep-seated emotions and desires.
It speaks to our universal longings to be loved, to have close and genuine connections, to be acknowledged, respected and to be authentic.
Let’s take a minute to look at this perfume commercial for Coeur Battant by Louis Vuitton.
Notice how the commercial doesn’t tell you much about the product being sold. What does it smell like? What is the price point? How does it compare to similar brands on the market?
Nonetheless, what the advertisement is conveying to the consumer is a certain image. An image of beauty, attractiveness and desirability from others – namely from other good looking men. With this perfume, and only with this perfume, one can surely achieve the confidence, recognition and status we’ve all desired. Right?
According to recent data, 46% of parents with children under 18 and 48% of those with existing credit card debt are willing to take on more debt in the 2020 Christmas holiday season. What can explain our irrational behaviour as we wait in long lines to buy the newest products on the market or spend far beyond our means on stuff we cannot afford? Why are we never content with what we own?
What is actually being sold to us?
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
To understand the intentions and messages behind modern advertising, we need to look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs such as food, shelter, clothing and at the top lies self-actualization. One must first satisfy their lower level needs before they begin working up the pyramid.
Maslow’s theory was that once we meet our basic we naturally aspire towards higher developmental needs such as: meaning, purpose, love, friendship etc. The crucial point made by Maslow was that there needs to be a healthy balance between our material, psychological and self-fulfillment needs.
The famous Biblical passage suggesting that we “cannot live on bread alone” speaks exactly to this idea. Humans require more than just physiological nourishment and material things to truly thrive.
The issue is that marketers are selling the idea that buying a product such as luxury clothing or fashion brands (ie. clothing\psychological needs) can fulfill our longing for another higher-level need such as love and belonging or esteem needs. Philosopher Alain De Botton explains this confusion clearly.
Nearly every advert one now cares to consider is selling us one thing while, beneath the surface, hinting at the appeasement of another higher need. It may look like one is buying a bag or a pair of shoes, a stay in a hotel or a kind of drink – but really what is tickling us unconsciously is a secret promise of spiritual goods we ache for a great deal more than we ever do for material possessions: a need for love and meaning, connection and calm, understanding and freedom
Now this is not to say we can not or should not enjoy the pleasures that luxury products bring us. It is rather noting that we should not be deluded into thinking that consuming an item can necessarily satisfy our deep yearnings for psychological wellbeing.
It is easy to get trapped into thinking our issues stem from not having things rather from our own flaws in character and disposition. We can not become mature or become a more admirable or respectable person by purchasing fancy sports cars.
Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and virtue or character can not be bought. As Aristotle claimed, character traits can only be acquired through repeated action and habit. One becomes courageous by performing courageous acts just as someone is considered honest when they consistently act honestly in all circumstances.
Yes, we can enjoy material things and consumer products, but there is a whole other world of possibilities outside of mindless consumerism. These are the ideals written about by the great writers, poets and religions – of transcendence, love, community and meaning.
Whatever we consume ultimately perishes, but who we become, who we are, can last forever.
So, as we get flooded with commercials and advertisements over the holiday season, we can all be a little more skeptical about what is actually being sold.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board
Written over 2,000 years ago, Plato’s allegory of the cave in his book The Republic has become increasingly relevant in our hyper-connected digital age. As more and more aspects of our lives become mediated by our digital devices we become further separated from the direct experience. That is, what we can physically see, touch, smell and hear.
Plato provides us with a metaphor in which a group of prisoners do not have contact with the outside world. What they take for ‘reality’ is shadows and images that are projected on the wall. Further, these prisoners are not aware of their situation. The illusions are the only thing they have ever known.
The story continues with one of the prisoners escaping from their chains and ascending into the daylight. At first, they are shocked into a daze from the power of the sun, but with time they gradually adjust their sight to the real objects in front of them. Aware of the illusions they previously experienced, the story concludes with the freed prisoner descending back into cave to persuade the others to break free from their chains and climb into the ‘real world’.
What Plato is suggesting through metaphor is how we can easily we can be persuaded by illusions and superficial reality. We often accept things at face value without critical reflection and rational thought. Trapped in our information ecosystems we become cynical and suspicious of the motives of others when we hear different points of view that differ from our own.
For Plato, the philosopher is the one who is able to transcend their limited perceptions and beliefs to experience a greater more fundamental truth.
The Machine Stops
The allegory of the cave has been portrayed in literature and in films such as The Matrix, The Truman Show and C.S Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles.
However, one short-story inspired by this idea that I want to focus on is E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops.
Written in 1909, it eerily foreshadows the rise of the internet as it ponders some of the technological concerns we face in the modern era.
The story depicts a world in which humans live underground isolated in small rooms, separated from the surface of the earth. The Machine provides for all human needs, and one has no reason or desire to leave their rooms. As described in the story,
There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
The story contrasts the viewpoints of a mother (Vashti) who is infatuated and indoctrinated by The Machine, and her son (Kuno) who has a desire to escape the confines of the system and experience the real world.
A Look at Technology in the Modern World
Let’s look at some key quotes and themes in the story, and compare them to modern society.
Direct Experience and Original Thought
Beware of first-hand ideas!
Think of how many hours a day you spend looking at screens. Whether its on a computer for work, a phone for social media or a television screen watching our favourite shows. We are constantly looking at the world of projections through our devices.
Further, as I wrote in a previous article, The Age of the Spectacle, the world of appearances that we carefully craft through our online profiles become more important that our experience in the real world.
While we have access to a wealth of knowledge at our finger tips, complex algorithms now personalize what information we see and have access to.
We are drawn towards conformity. If one wants to ignore another perspective or set of ideas all they have to do is stay within own media filter bubble. In a polarized environment, news outlets prioritize views and clicks over truth.
We lose any sense of objectivity.
What is true?
Opinion and fact become indistinguishable.
Progress and the Loss of Human Values
But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.
In his book Technology and Nihilism, Nolen Gertz looks at how technology in the modern world makes us passive consumers. How often do we question or critically think about the impact that technology plays in our lives?
Building off Nietzsche’s work on nihilism, Getz distinguishes between the individual who actively creates their own values and meaning (active nihilism) versus one who mindlessly accepts the expectations and cultural norms of society (passive nihilism).
For Getz, technology poses a risk to freedom and enables us to evade responsibility. We put too must trust and faith in these machines, and run the risk of not thinking for ourselves.
He draws a parallel to Nietzsche’s critique of religion observing how technology can also be ‘life-denying’. Just like one may reject and neglect their life in this world in the hopes of the afterlife, technology too promises a way out of confronting the issues of our existence and numbing us to suffering.
Running away from the hard realities of life we turn to the endless distractions on our screens in an attempt to escape.
Consequently, we mistakenly think technological progress is equivalent to improvements in human progress, character or well-being. This however is not always the case.
The tech revolution promised us our heart’s desires: everything you want to know at the click of a mouse; the ability to become famous to strangers; anything you want to buy, delivered to your door in days without you having to leave home.
But our happiness has not increased as a result—on the contrary. Mounting evidence shows that media and technology use predict deleterious psychological and physiological outcomes, especially among young people.
The purpose of this article is not to convince one to discard one’s beliefs or abandon technology altogether. It is a call to analyze and seriously consider the things we so easily take for granted in our culture – the things we passively accept.
What illusions do we cling onto? What unfounded assumptions do we refuse to let go? Is it possible for us to look honestly at objections to our beliefs and engage in good faith dialogue with others who may disagree with us?
Perhaps we can aspire to one of the forgotten virtues of our culture – the virtue of humility.
With the advent of ‘smart homes’, ‘smart phones’ and ‘smart cities’, artificial intelligence and virtual reality we need to be cautious. Technology can either be a liberating force or plunge us further into our own deceptions. It can either trap us further into the cave or offer a way out.