A few years ago someone observed to me that when you read American newspapers from the turn of the last century, you commonly see a word that now seems a bit quaint. When journalists from the late 1800s wanted to refer collectively to the 76 million Americans alive at that time, they called them citizens.
But by the turn of the millennium, a different word had become our customary way of speaking of Americans as a whole — 300 million of us today. Now, more often than not, the word that appears to designate us is consumers.
Practically speaking, the word consumer didn’t exist in 1900. For one thing, there wasn’t very much to consume. Richard Sears had just launched his catalog in 1894. What people consumed, they tended to produce — 40% of the population were farmers, compared to 2% today. Meanwhile, the word citizen had tremendous resonance in a country that had just concluded its first century of existence, under a new form of government that relied in unprecedented ways on the participation of ordinary people. Our nation had suffered a wrenching civil war that required Americans to decide what kind of nation they would inhabit, and what kind of citizens they would be. No wonder that when our great- or great-great-grandparents thought of themselves, they thought of themselves as citizens.
When we further recall that in 1900 women had not yet been given the right to vote, we realize that the actual number of fully enfranchised “citizens” was probably well below 30 million. That’s still a large number, but it’s much easier to envision yourself as a citizen who can actually make a difference in a country of 30 million than in a country of 300 million. And most Americans at the time lived not in cities but in rural areas or small towns, close to the mechanics of local government. These days, when we do talk about civic participation — as we are this election year — we use the word voters. But voter, compared to citizen, probably would have seemed to our great-greatgrandparents a very thin word indeed.
Those great-great-grandparents could not possibly have anticipated the century’s worth of economic growth in the 1900s that would introduce a profusion of consumer goods to the average citizen of the developed world. This year, 300,000 books will be published in the United States. More than 100,000 films are currently available from Netflix — if you watched one every night, it would take 273 years to get through the whole catalog. One of the greatest psychological challenges the typical middle-class resident of America now faces, as documented by psychologists like Barry Schwartz, is simply the abundance of choice. We have become adept at minutely examining and excavating our own preferences and needs, from what toothpaste to use to what movie to rank in our Netflix queue, and leveraging the worldwide power of brands to carve out our own sense of identity. In a typical week, even in a presidential election year, how many times do you communicate with one of your elected representatives or participate in a public meeting? And how many times do you order that particular combination of customized drink at your local coffeeshop that defines you as you? It’s no wonder that we call ourselves consumers.
This dramatic shift in the way we name ourselves does not mean, obviously, that we have stopped being citizens. It just means that on a daily basis, the place where we find meaning and satisfaction is not primarily in civic participation, but in consumption. Citizenship seems remote and impersonal; consumption seems immediate and individual, something we can actively do to shape our world. Perhaps it’s not surprising that when Al Qaeda unleashed its horrific challenge to America, the clarion call from the White House was, “Go shopping.” We are still citizens, but many of us find our identity, who we are, even our response to the most pressing issues of our time, in what we consume.
SATISFACTION There are many differences between a culture built around consumption and a culture built around citizenship, but the one that fascinates me most is consumer culture’s ability to give us nearly instantaneous experiences of satisfaction. A few weeks ago I read a blog post about a new musical artist who blends classical piano, trip-hop, and ambient music. Within minutes I had found him on iTunes, downloaded his album, and pressed play. The gap between desire and satisfaction was almost imperceptible, allowing for just a bit of pleasurable anticipation as the spinning cursor indicated the swift progress of my download.
Indeed, as any serious shopper can tell you, the satisfaction began even before I clicked on the “buy this album” button in iTunes. Anticipation itself was quite satisfying. My satisfaction notched up further when I put in my earphones, pressed play, and started to immerse myself in an elaborate new musical world. Given how painlessly I was parted from my money (Apple kindly stores my credit card details on their server — aren’t they nice?), it was, so far, a perfectly satisfying experience. You could draw it on a simple graph — satisfaction over time — like this:
But I knew even before I pressed play that this album, no matter how good it turned out to be, was very unlikely to stay as satisfying as it was on that first hearing. True, the second or fourth or tenth time I listened to it I might still be hearing new details in the music or appreciating some subtle resonance in the lyrics. But eventually, if this album followed the pattern of nearly every one of the thousands of pieces of recorded music I have bought in my lifetime, the satisfaction would start to trail off:
We’ve all had this experience. Before you bought it, the album seemed like something you couldn’t live without. And at first it delivers thrilling new experiences. But as it becomes more and more part of your routine, eventually it subsides into the background, gathering digital dust in the depths of your iTunes list, delivering very little additional satisfaction. Go back far enough in your history of musical purchases, at least when you reach a certain age, and some of them start to seem downright unsatisfying: great was my embarrassment when a friend paging through my iTunes collection found Journey’s Greatest Hits, with a surprisingly high play count for “Faithfully.” (Tenth grade, slow dance, Julie Tucker — you had to be there.)
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