Consumerism is Obsolete

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Producer-ism is the new reality, and has been already for decades.

Or, so said Marshall McLuhan back in the 60’s and 70’s.  It was never his main point, but he said it a few times in a few different books, and it’s recently caught my ear.

I’ve been reading up on technology since the pandemic hit my context in 2020.  When the world shut down we all hopped online, surely accelerating whatever trends or effects such a digitally mediated world was already having on us. 

Now, a big theme we tend to hammer on is the consumerism that marks our lives and world.  Amazon isn’t building a massive new warehouse in my backyard in Hamilton (Ontario) for nothing, after all. 

But is that still the complete or even the right diagnosis for the malaise of a digital world—that we are people rabidly consuming products, shows, and even the Creation itself?  The shoe still fits to a great extent no doubt, but maybe we’re starting to grow out of it. 

Over the past number of years, a different trend of producing has been on the rise.  Different people have noticed and written about this increasing trend to do-it-yourself, to make things, and to take up a real craft or trade.  Producing has not necessarily been set or seen explicitly as the opposite pole from consumerism, though.  Nor has it received the bad press that consumerism has. 

Back in 1964, writing on any number of different implications of our continuing use of any electric-powered medium, McLuhan said this: “…the consumer becomes producer in the automation circuit, quite as much as the reader of the mosaic telegraph press makes his own news, or just is his own news.” (Understanding Media, 462). 

So: the rise in our electric age of the do-it-yourselfers, the makers, the craft brewers, pinterest, and even sourdough baking during pandemic lockdowns (I must confess: I do make a pretty mean boule now as of COVID-tide).  There’s quite a spattering of personal production activity.  When we think of producing something, we’re often thinking of producing something like this: something tangible, beautiful, artistic.  And that’s well and good. 

There is, perhaps another side to it though—all the intangibles we are increasingly producing.

The early days of the internet promised something else to us, not just encyclopedic access to information that would place great DIY ideas at our fingertips, but also the ability for anyone to publish anything from anywhere, anytime.  With our smartphones, this idea increasingly comes to maturity as we increasingly have the power to do just that.  To create and publish ethereally, intangibly: disconnected from the confines of physical, spatial, and even temporal constraints.

We take and edit photos to post to Instagram.  We make memes for Facebook.  We create riffs on TikTok.  We produce posts and texts and emails.  All of this an act of converting our embodied capacities, experiences, and indeed our very lives into the character of intangible, electric information.  This is the production of intangible content, the initiation of a dialogue that we launch out into the digital world, hoping to hear back from that digital world soon, ideally in a word, like, or emoji of affirmation.

Perhaps most incessantly of all though: we produce not content, but reactions; not the initiating of a dialogue, but the feedback-loop response to it.  We produce these reactions to everything.  All the time.  Often immediately, regardless of what we were otherwise doing in the real world.  And often reactively, reflexively: without much thought.  Our phone buzzes, we pick it up, and we produce a reaction (a like, emoji, gif, text, snap, etc.). 

As the world of Facebook helped us realize through its ingenious page title: we make our own news (i.e. our “newsfeed”).  Indeed, as McLuhan said, we are our own news. 

Despite our angst toward Facebook (see: “The Social Dilemma,” or any Zuckerberg testimony on capital hill), we are the ones who produce what Facebook's algorithms feed back to us in our “newsfeed” by producing our reactions, even reactions as slight as halting our scroll over a particular picture for a moment.  Living in our own “echo chamber” is how we’ve talked about this phenomenon, but Facebook's echo-production (as with any machine learning) is derivative: first someone has to produce the sound to be echoed.  We are more than happy to be those producers. 

The echo-chamber is the fruit of our own reaction-producing labours: we reap the “news” that is merely a Narcissus-esque reflection of ourselves.  Happy with that compensation, we let Facebook and its advertisers keep our paycheck for themselves.  To be clear, Facebook can’t do any of what it’s been able to do, including generating a whole lot of wealth and power for itself, without our time-intensive labour of producing reactions.

Reaction-production has been a major effort of ours long before social media was around, though.  What happened in the 90’s (or earlier) when the telephone rang?  You produced a response and picked it up, responding to whoever happened to be on the other side.  Like a crying infant in need of tending on the wall, we couldn’t let the opportunity to produce a disembodied response to who knows who go unanswered, even if it came at the loss of connection with the embodied fellowship we may have otherwise been having with someone in our living room at the time.  This behaviour is not new with the advent of social media and the smart phone, it’s merely accelerated and become more pronounced.

Flipping back to the content-production side, social media and the smart phone also come with unseen imperatives: production is one of them.  Phones have cameras and microphones, which demand to be used to produce pictures and videos.  Recent ads envision us as movie producers (“filmed on the IPhone”) with naught but our phones, and indeed since COVID, that’s what many of us have become (I filmed a lot of church service elements on my phone this last year).  Photos too: how much of life do you experience not by being present to it, but with an eye to use it, to share it with someone else through the production of a picture?  That picture will of course invite the production of reactions from others, to which you yourself will likely also produce reactions.  The world and all the people in it, including ourselves, are becoming to us the utilitarian means of intangible, social production.

That production comes at a cost.  But the cost is not tallied like the cost of consumerism: a cost debited against the exterior world of creation (all that technology is made out of something though!).  The cost of these electric means of production is levied against our internal capacities, against our very selves. 

We ourselves—our creativity, our thoughts, our emotions, our mental capacity (and health?)—are the limited resources extracted in the process of this kind of production.  Each of us having become our own self-publishing photographer, videographer, writer, pundit, journalist, political scientist, medical doctor, financial planner, social butterfly, etc: we simply can’t keep up with demand.  The imperative to produce, whether original content or reaction to and for everything and everyone out of every corner of the world has left our finite embodied selves as the bottleneck in the information supply chain of our disembodied digital world.  Mental health incidence rates since the advent of the smart phone would suggest (via correlation at least) that this particular component (our body) is showing the strain of overuse in these smart-phone driven conditions. 

Producing can be a good thing, as can consuming.  We do live after all on the consumption of food, drink, and oxygen and were created for work which tends to contribute to producing things, like food and drink.  These are good gifts.  But we are also embodied creatures, which means we are created with limits.  To be faithful stewards of all the creation of which we are a part, we cannot over-consume.  But neither it would seem, can we over-produce—whether that production is tangible or intangible.  God gave a Sabbath to teach us the good boundaries of our creatureliness.  That’s a command worth keeping, also in our digitally disembodied lives.

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Very thoughtful. 

If it had been this easy back then we might have had more than 4 gospels...

...which we might have had anyway, were it not for some inspired boundary-setting. 

Perhaps that is what is most called for today: inspired boundary setting. Come Lord Jesus, come quickly, before we kill eachother with content overdose.

Thanks for "producing" such a life giving article Anthony! I love the way you nuance the debate. Not all production is bad or good, it's more about recognizing the limits of our bodies and brains. I really appreciate the bottleneck metaphor in this line: "The imperative to produce, whether original content or reaction to and for everything and everyone out of every corner of the world has left our finite embodied selves as the bottleneck in the information supply chain of our disembodied digital world."