"I Buy, Therefore I Am?: Excess consumption in the age of digital media"

Image from iOS

Caroline Jenkins

 

Our generation is known to consume the most amount of media all day, everyday. It is interwoven into almost every aspect of our daily lives. This can, of course, be attributed to the fact that we were the first generation to grow up with the Internet, and this type of constant consumption is normal because we have never known there to be a different reality where media wasn’t always readily available to consume. As a generation we are also used to being criticized for this reliance on the online world, known for being “glued to our phones” or addicted to our devices. Although there is some truth to these scrutinies, we as a world are evolving into a body that cannot survive without the interconnectedness of the Internet.  

But with all this being said, there is a less talked about phenomenon happening amongst the world of Gen Z’s, one that is perpetuated by the colossal presence of media in our lives. 

This new age of media consumption contains a pocket which seems to be rooted in the need to buy things, and not only buy things but buy things at a rapid pace. There is a greater need for material possessions now; people desire goods and buy them as if they are necessities like food and water. In a time of increased convenience and rapid gratification people seek out shopping as a source of serotonin or happiness. Buying things is no longer a task people do when they actually need something, for it is now a mental health booster. This temporary gratification works to preserve a consumerist agenda that equivocates happiness with buying things. 

The issue with this happiness is that it is a facade; a sort of empty promise that is always deflated and replaced with more buying. It is a hollow happiness; one that requires a constant refill, and in this case it leads to further spending and shopping. With already fragile mental health, consumers in today’s world hope to feel something with a purchase. A tiny blip of fleeting joy that goes away as soon as they swipe their card, click buy now, or open a package from the mail. 

Unfortunately, attempting to poorly fix one’s already weakened mental health state is not the only danger of this kind of insatiable consumption. 

Buying things may also now be justified by being disguised in a shell of activism. For example, following the anti-Asian hate crimes in Atlanta that killed six Asian women in the spring of last year, Instagram stories were populated with posts. Most of these are productive, including links and resources to fund organizations centered in ending Asian hate. However, there were many that included links to “shop Asian owned businesses” and “Asian influencers to follow,” which are ultimately unproductive and a somewhat tone-deaf means to solve a much larger social issue. How is buying a shirt from a particular business rather than another going to educate people, incite change, fundraise? It’s not. A side effect of being chronically online is the ways in which we may begin to be utterly convinced that we are doing our part solely by being a consumer, that we can call ourselves activists for following someone on Instagram. 

In a similar fashion, DietPrada made a post on their Instagram account recently calling out corporations for using Black History Month as a means to drive sales. Dashiki print was used by many companies such as American Airlines, as well as Joann Fabrics to “celebrate” Black History Month, but in actuality worked to perpetuate the notion that the only way this country can be united is in its need to buy things. 

Not only do these examples devalue the social issues they claim to be supporting, but they muddy the water so that the actually valuable resources and meaningful parts of the conversation get lost behind layers of sales and product promotions. 

It also should be mentioned that Gen Z is known to be the most environmentally-conscious generation, believing wholeheartedly and taking part in movements rooted in climate change, sustainability, etc. In 2021, Pew Research Center reported on Gen Z’s concern with climate change, “76% of them say that it’s one of their biggest societal concerns, while 37% make it their number one concern.” Although these statistics are very promising, there is also a crushing pressure to constantly be keeping up with trends and following influencers suggestions of new products. 

With two sides of the coin; one pushing environmental consciousness and the other pushing the incredibly fast paced demands of the trend cycle, the side of the trend cycle will usually win out. Even if someone only shops sustainably, which is not as harmful to the environment as the alternatives, it is still not positively contributing to the amount of things one person may amass in a short period.  

I had to listen to a podcast for one of my fashion classes last semester by NPR titled “I Buy, Therefore I Am.” It talked about how we project who we are or who we want to be by choosing specific brands to wear. Essentially there is a type of psychological gravitational pull a customer may develop to a particular brand. But in listening to this, there seemed to be a more disturbing underlayer, one revealing a narrative where we tie our identity to material things. It may also be projecting the idea that we buy things in the hope of remaking ourselves somehow, changing little pieces of ourselves to appear a little more cool to people in our lives or appeal to people more.

I think this really just paints a disheartening picture of the world we live in and contribute to, where we can’t be happy, or have meaningful conversations about things, or really be our authentic selves because it is all muddled with our need for consumption first. This rapid pace in which we buy things is very normalized, making it hard to even realize when we are contributing to it. 

In the end, we need to be very aware of how we are participating as consumers and be more intentional with the value we place on our possessions. 

This summer I attended a speaker series where designer Mara Hoffman discussed fashion’s social and environmental impact. She was asked how she comes to terms with still contributing to the larger issues of consumption by designing clothes, while simultaneously advocating for a sustainable future. What she said has continuously stuck with me and I think is an important way of looking at things we buy. She affirmed that it is important to have some sort of relationship with our material possessions, they need to hold value for us. With this mindset we may begin to cut down on meaningless items and learn to only buy things we really truly desire.