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The Consumption Culture

April 20, 2015

Every weekday, commuting home on the city bus, I'm more often than not buried in my news feed across multiple screens, laying out the schedule and to-do's for the day, and checking on the statuses of various projects I manage. But there was one particular day where the news was dry, the schedule was rather clean, and I was feeling comfortable enough to look up and look around. My bus is a crowded one, with more people packed inside than is probably advisable for safety's sake. But most people share one activity on their bus ride: using their electronic devices. I don't mean to sound like a middle-aged technophobe, but it's unnerving to look up from my screens to everyone else around me, and find that I was doing exactly what they are doing -- playing games, checking social media, texting, listening to podcasts, calling, Snapchatting, watching YouTube, and everything else in between that the modern marvels of technology have to offer. But there was one thing those people weren't doing, and that was being in the present moment.

There was one thing those people weren't doing, and that was being in the present moment.

Mobile technology today allows us to do some pretty amazing things with tiny chunks of metal living inside our pockets, and a lot of that can be summed up as acting as a metaphorical worm hole of humanity. The heartbeat of mobile tech is connections. Not only the connections between our devices and the Internet, but also the connections to other human beings that we ourselves find through electronics. Sitting inside a dingy old city bus in a small Midwest town, I can check out the festivals in Munich in real-time, experience what Paris is having for breakfast, get a taste of the CNBLUE show in Seoul, and celebrate Gay Pride Parades in the Big Apple, all in a matter of few minutes. And each of these indirect experiences are enriching and valuable, adding something fresh to our rather mundane lives. But it also leads us to move inside and live on the Internet, rather than in the present moment, where we -- at least partially -- belong. In engaging more and more of our lives with the cyberspace, we've also spread out our attention and time in between the virtual and the material worlds. While digital experiences were originally designed to supplement our daily routines, it's grown to consume and become the dominant part of many of our lives.

Our technology and connection-driven culture has created a bubble around the idea of consuming stuff constantly, rather than creating value.

My position is not that this transition from the purely material to the primarily digital lifestyle is absolutely negative -- it varies by circumstance and by person. But if there is a commonality to be had in the culture of the digital, it's the culture of consumption. From streaming services to social networks, the overwhelming majority of our online "lives" are filled to the brim with consuming content, and very seldom do we find creation of something new in our digital lives. And we're not the only ones to blame for that culture. Every time we turn on a screen, we're bombarded with seemingly endless streams of information, whether it be Facebook News Feeds, Twitter streams, news alerts, or texts. And what can we do against these incoming traffic but to take a seat and open up, to consume that information flowing in?

However, those pieces of content that magically flow into our feeds -- they need to come from somewhere. Each YouTube video, each blog post, each picture has a creator. And those people are taking their time to produce something new to share with the rest rather than just pulling in and consuming content. Unfortunately, at the moment, there are far more consumers of content than creators. The Internet has done am amazing job at increasing the number of creators, but that doesn't mean the ratio of creators to consumers of content is noticeably higher. In an ideal world, I think the ratio of creator to consumer is one to one -- everyone making something new for the world, and everyone sharing with each other. While fiddling around on 2048 may be slightly entertaining, and watching vloggers go through their lives even better, none of those contribute more to the world around us than the act of producing something entirely new.

Creation is something unique to people, and precisely because we're the only ones who can create art from color and craft poetry from words, those items created by us carry with them a piece of our humanness.

The act of consumption is something so primitive and basic -- you can set down an iPad in front of a three-year-old or a chimp, and watch them consume the images moving across the screen. Consumption may be entertaining and even worth the time, but it's certainly not the highest value-pack available when it comes to content and enjoyment. In contrast to consuming content, creation is something unique to people, and precisely because we're the only ones who can create art from color and craft poetry from words, those items created by us carry with them a piece of our humanness.

The digital world right now is heavily skewed towards the culture of consumption. And it's not too bad. But if we can turn the dial a little bit to make for a culture of creation, I think it could be just the ingredient we need to make the virtual reality more life-like.