Consumption 2.0. sounds a lot like Consumption 1.0.
Earlier this year, I came across an article in The Futurist called “Consumption 2.0.” by Hugo Garcia, who correctly points out that consumers are increasingly seeking alternatives to ownership and the accumulation of property. Media libraries, for instance, are becoming past relics as cloud-based digital access services continue their meteoric rise in popularity. The Consumption 2.0. argument goes that kids today just aren’t really into owning things. They want the freedom to make easier and faster decisions, and impatiently expect the latest things to appear immediately in the here and now. Add to this a culture of rapid obsolescence, and it’s easy to see why we’re increasingly losing our attachment to owning physical stuff. But let’s not kid ourselves, simply because we’re increasingly owning less stuff, doesn’t mean that ownership and accumulation themselves are habits of a bygone area. In fact, as the Consumption 2.0. trend continues and we become increasingly reliant on rentals, pay-per-use, and the licensing of cloud-based content, ownership will become more important and lucrative than ever. While consumers are indeed seeking alternatives to ownership, nothing really is happening to ownership itself.
According to Garcia, consumers are seeking alternatives to ownership and the accumulation of property for a few reasons: First, overpopulation, crowding and urban density has begun to press on the Earth’s ecological limits. I believe that this has resulted in a psychological aversion to clutter and density, demonstrated by the revival in New Age ‘Zen’ lifestyles, the craze for techniques like Yoga, and the design of popular interfaces based on the principle of clear, white space. In general, we strive for a kind of anti-Baroque aesthetic. Second, cultures impacted by Consumption 2.0. value immaterial traits like knowledge, information and reputation equal to or higher than physical things. We’re even accustomed to the idea that the money in our bank accounts is simply a number bouncing through servers. Third, in our work habits we are increasing resembling postmodern nomads, for whom “physical attachments impair mobility”. Fourth, in many places, including those which faced the brunt of the latest economic crisis, a kind of disillusionment has set in with respect to land-value and the ownership of property. A kind of synthesis of all these reasons can be found in Japanese geki-sema share houses, also known affectionately as “Coffin Apartments”.
The celebrants of consumption 2.0. – such as the author of the Futurist article mentioned above – are optimistic about this trend toward so-called “collaborative consumption”, and hail the emerging consumer behaviors as environmentally friendly and socially progressive alternatives to the traditional forms of ownership that were symbolic of a wasteful consumer society.
But rather than a ‘socially progressive’ trend whose end-goal would be the elimination of private property (etc…), the trend seems to be driven more by a mindless Zen-style urge to lose yourself that is increasingly being experienced by a cramped and restless Millennial generation. Further, some proponents of Consumption 2.0. use socially progressive terminology, but the trend itself retains – and amplifies – many of the structures that these individuals rail against. In fact, these ‘alternatives’ to ownership are actually serving to funnel tremendous amounts of wealth upwards into fewer and fewer hands. Private property may be abolished for us on the ground, but not for them in the cloud.
It’s important to remember that all those digital albums you’ve ‘purchased’ aren’t really albums at all, but non-transferable licenses for files that you can’t legally resell. Just this month – in the case of Capitol Records v. ReDigi – a federal judge in New York ruled against reselling copyrighted digital files. Without getting into the details here, the court found that reselling digital music files violates existing copyright laws.
As media libraries become a thing of the past, and we become subscribers to cloud content, we are increasingly being transmitted content that is highly compressed at it’s source (i.e. the satellites that orbit the cloud). Satellite radio, for example, sounds like its being beamed through a tin can and the so-called ‘HD’ picture quality offered by large cable providers is often atrociously compressed and pixelated. The decision makers (i.e. owners of the licenses in the cloud) transmit content in the cheapest way possible. Compare Satellite Radio, which uses only 125Khz per channel to the 200KHz per station quality of FM radio… It’s astounding how much worse the quality of new access-based formats is.
I’m not normally nostalgic, but I’m going to miss used record stores and combing through second hand shops for content. I resent that future generations likely won’t be able to squirrel their things away, and nostalgically rediscover them tattered, scratched, dog eared and covered in dust. Everything will be eternally available in the cloud, presented in whatever new format the cloud owner deems most economical.
Consumption 2.0. often comes off as ‘progressive’ when – behind the curtain – it’s really just an intensification of the status-quo. I worry that as this trend builds momentum, the things we work hard to afford being able to interact with, are becoming valueless licenses that cannot legally be exchanged or re-sold. I would seriously weigh the arguments for and against a trend that seems to be ushering us beyond ownership and the accumulation of property, but Consumption 2.0. really just seems like a clandestine move in the opposite direction.