The new screens offer something that the television never did: the opportunity to participate in shaping your own experience. The personal computer is the gateway to the Internet, and on the Internet I am as likely to be typing or uploading as I am to be reading or downloading. On the cell phone I am as likely to talk or text as I am to listen or read. And in the increasingly immersive and realistic world of the videogame, satisfaction hinges upon my action and skill, not on the prepackaged skill of someone else. It is not an accident, I think, that the most involving videogame platform yet — the Nintendo Wii, which requires not just twitching thumbs but full-body participation — has also been the best-selling console of its generation.
The most successful retail enterprises in our economy have deftly followed, and enabled, this shift from passive consumption to active participation. YouTube, which according to one study accounted for 10% of all Internet traffic in North America last year, is built on the premise that consumers want to become creators: “What our users want to watch is themselves,” YouTube founder Chad Hurley told the Associated Press. “They don’t want to watch professionally produced content. There are so many people with cameras that have the opportunity to create their own content and so many more people with editing tools to tell their stories, we feel this is just the tip of the iceberg” (emphasis added).
Apple CEO Steve Jobs foresaw the shift away from consumption earlier and more keenly than almost anyone. Apple built its reputation for elegance and user delight by catering to a core audience of “creative” professionals like designers and film producers. But even “consumer” Macs ship with the “iLife suite,” which includes applications like iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand, all designed to help you actively manage your photos, movies, and latent musical skills. To be sure, GarageBand probably goes unused by the vast majority of Apple customers, but Apple understands that our aspirations have shifted. We may still spend the majority of our lives consuming (and eagerly upgrading to the latest and greatest Apple product — has anyone ever mastered the pattern of purchases better than Jobs?), but that is not how we want to see ourselves, and Apple assures us that is not how they see us. They see us as we want to see ourselves: not as consumers, but as creators (and, of course, as fantastically groovy silhouetted dancers).
And the economic result? The largest personal computer manufacturer, Dell, made a profit of $3B on top-line revenues of $57B in 2007. Apple’s top-line revenues that year were only $24B — less than half of Dell’s — but their profit was $3.5B, the equal of Dell’s plus a cool $500M. There is tremendous profit to be captured by treating people as creators, not consumers.
So here is my prediction: by 2100 our great-grandchildren will identify themselves in a way that will seem as strange and foreign to us as “consumer” would have seemed to our great-grandparents. The precise word they use may not be creators, but it will have that word’s connotations of participation and personal engagement. This doesn’t mean, by the way, that they will be any less consumers than we are today, just as we are just as much citizens of our country as our greatgrandparents were. It simply means that their identity, the way they order their lives, and the place they seek satisfaction will have shifted from consumption to something much more like creation.
I’m seeing something very similar among Christians. I’ve received a remarkable response as I’ve traveled speaking on the topic of my new book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. One of the themes of that book, as I shared at Q in 2007, is that in recent decades the dominant postures of evangelical Christians toward culture have been critique and consumption, not cultivation or creation. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me they have grown dissatisfied with just being critics or consumers of culture. We are eager to move beyond a passive, reactive posture toward the culture around us — we’ve realized it’s no good either for the church’s mission or for our own souls. Christians are not only leveling critiques at the excesses of consumerism, they are coming up with creative alternatives like the Advent Conspiracy, which redirects Christmas spending toward water projects around the world with the slogan “compassion, not consumption.”
In many ways this disenchantment with consumer culture, both in mainstream culture and among many Christians, is a welcome and encouraging development. Christians of all people, whose founding story begins with a call to creativity and cultivation, and whose understanding of sin begins with an act of disobedient consumption, have every reason to welcome our culture’s tentative turn away from the fleeting satisfactions of purchases.
I just wish I was sure that this trend is good news.
UNDISCIPLINED CREATIVITY For here is the problem with our turn toward participation and a kind of creative involvement: it can easily replicate the pattern of purchases all over again, except this time the “purchased” good is our own creativity.
Consider one of the most prodigious examples of mass creativity since the rise of the Internet: the phenomenon of weblogs, those outposts of personal expression that captured so much attention and occupied so much of the time of pajama-clad netizens in the early years of the twenty-first century. One of the early pioneers in bringing blogs to the masses, especially the teenage masses, was the Web site LiveJournal, which made it easy for anyone to easily broadcast their latest musings to their friends and the general public. (LiveJournal may seem passé today, just as Facebook probably will by this time next year, but according to Alexa, LiveJournal’s worldwide traffic rank in June 2008 was still a very respectable 54.) In 2005 LiveJournal released some fascinating information about the blogs it hosted. Two hundred ninety thousand LiveJournal users had updated their blogs in the past 30 days (and as all bloggers know, if you haven’t updated your blog in 30 days, you don’t have a blog). That was 20 percent of LiveJournal’s total registered users — meaning that 1.16M LiveJournal users had effectively abandoned their blogs.
What did the satisfaction curve look like for those 1,116,000 people? Perhaps you are one of them. Do you recall the euphoria when your blog site first went live? The excitement of posting your thoughts about politics, the church, contemporary culture, the meaning of life — not to mention the most fascinating topic of all, blogging itself?
The second and third days were not quite as exciting, but of course you still had lots of pent-up creativity to express. Witty posts about your English class, updates on your plans for the weekend, a carefully crafted examination of the pros and cons of getting a new cell phone. Day four featured a photograph of your dog. Then there was the first week’s traffic report, where you discovered that all your creative output had been viewed by a grand total of 23 people, four of whom were your mom.
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