Quick note: It’s been a while since I last posted here. This month, I decided to post more regularly and on a wide range of topics. Anything I deem interesting. I hope my (currently sparse) readership will enjoy. If anything, it’s decent writing practice.
To start in again, I wanted to make a few observations about a self-replicating cycle (I wouldn’t call it vicious, but maybe I should) that bedevils the relationship we have with media, the environment, and life itself. Yes, it is quite serious! It might be called the experience trap.
I’m not referring to the modern epidemic of unpaid internships, a resume-industrial complex that glimmers with the false sheen of necessity for too many college grads. No, the issue at play here is far subtler, and characteristically postmodern in its implications.
On one level, the experience trap operates as an advertising scheme. Young people, as we have been encouraged to know, crave experience over possession. We live and consume in the moment, putting the beach sunset, the cafe buzz, the skydiving trip above the whole business of mortgages, ladder climbing, and delayed returns. Marketers incorporate this theme into their creations, further replicating it.
And so we’re left with the flighty Millennial stereotype, of Facebook-addicted twenty-somethings leading a legion of high schoolers to text and Instagram their way into the abyss. Youngsters’ heads buried in smartphones, their parents following suit. This is all very frightening. Of course it’s also simplistic, just a symptom of the real malaise.
The Millennial, commentators report, has begun to settle down. Some are having kids, moving to the suburbs, doing as their ancestors have done. But that doesn’t change the fact that media – especially advertising media – has embraced the mythic, ecstatic, in-the-moment experience as what we all should crave.
Along with the stream of articles on Millennial childbirth and the suburban Millennial come reports of Millennial frugality, of a willingness to rent, of young people returning to the Rust Belt for cheap housing and hipster grit. Postmodern counterculturalists reject the overt status symbols of American Dream 1.0 and embrace an updated version. In American Dream 2.0 (or is it 1.1?), apps, bikes, micro-apartments, and the sharing economy will liberate us from the crushing burden of owning things. We will save the planet by having easily-categorized experiences rather than actual possessions. We will rent services, and go without if need be.
The counterargument is obvious. If we don’t own anything in the sharing economy, we end up forever indentured to those who do. If we give up driving in cities with no bike lanes, we get crushed beneath the wheels of those who could care less about climate change. By ceding the desire to accumulate – a simple, small-minded fixation – in favor of a wish to “just live life,” we risk disenfranchising ourselves at a crucial moment.
After all, climate change is upon us. Income inequality is gruesome. People are stripped of opportunity and dignity because of their identities. Imperialism’s legacy remains fully entrenched in the global economy.
But this is also an exciting time because we’re finally acknowledging the underlying social psychoses beneath not just these issues, but all their permutations and offspring. A worldwide web of data, dumb and mute in of itself, has become available to millions of minds, making us, as a species, more mature, more aware, more critical.
Still, whatever progress civilization might be making, what about our own lives? Can the experiences we allow ourselves ever measure up to our world-class expectations? There is a protean fear at work beneath the glossy veneer of mainstream culture, a burrowing doubt that grafts itself into every counterculture, onto every attempt to tell a social story with legitimacy and self-respect.
It’s what makes people turn to possessions, to ownership, again and again and against all the evidence that money can’t buy happiness. It’s the nagging sense that the experiences we have – the kind we are allowed to have – aren’t enough to replace what consumerism offers. (Which is what, again?) Most of the time we can’t even untangle our activities from consumerism, let alone tease out something revolutionary.
If we intend to value experiences over possessions, to look back on a life worth living, we need to reexamine the context of those experiences. Are they truly memorable? Do they stick in the mind without electronic aid? Did they contribute to real growth, to an evolving mind and spirit? Are we alive to the difference between long-term and short-term memory, or do we let weeks and months slip by unremembered?
Above all, can we really say that we want a latte-sipping life, free from real danger and pain, free of the thought of death, hemmed in by the invisible bounds of virtuality, anesthetized by the knowledge that we all live in an age of distraction? Too disenchanted to fully embrace corporate capitalism, too civilized to actually challenge it? A life in which curation becomes creativity, and one experience cannot be meaningfully distinguished from the next?
The experience peddlers tell us to step up and do what makes us come alive. But that’s wrong, isn’t it? We’re alive already. We need to throw off what deadens us.
Photo credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr