Can technology reduce consumerism?

I regularly take the the top voted question from readers and answer them in a post. With 62 votes, today’s winner was:

Can technology reduce consumerism?

I am certain the answer is a 100% definitely maybe. I need to pre-order a grande soy latte from Starbucks on my blue-toothed iPhone 5 while driving in my series M BMW Coupe before I can think clearly enough to answer that.

Before I make up my mind, here’s a story. Recently I went on a twitter tirade (a twirade?) about consumerism, particularly how it relates to America’s struggle to conceive of solving problems without having to buy something first.

But a better definition comes from Wikipedia, which says: consumerism is a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. Since the 1940s the amount of consumable goods America, and the world, consumes has risen dramatically. But is this bad?

It has been wonderful economically, certainly for America. WWII decimated the industrial capacity for Europe, making the untouched factories and infrastructures of American cities incredibly valuable to the world, and to the American economy. But it has also been bad for the environment, as having an economy that depends on consumer goods motivates the sales of more consumer goods that people could possibly need, particularly plastics, which has environmental consequences we may never recover from. Even seemingly progressive products like mobile phones depend on minerals and elements that are rare and are expensive to mine. Upgrading phones or laptops every three years, which is common, has costs that go beyond economics. On the personal level, the amount of debt the average American carries is higher than ever, spurred on by the cultural values of consumption and owning new products that contribute little to happiness, fulfillment or the needs people have.

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes. working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

But can technology, which is a form of product, help reduce these problems? No. Not directly. This may sound like semantic noodling, but only people make choices about consumption. The point of my tweet is the consumerist trap of believing we can’t do anything unless we have an app, a system, a product, or a program. If a person wants to consume less, they will. No technology is required to spend less, or to choose goods not on trends but on which will last longest. Buy Nothing day requires no tools or devices, just a willingness to try and spend 24 hours without buying anything.

Of course you can find iPhone apps that help with recycling or finding environmentally preferable products. Books are a kind of technology too, and there’s plenty to read about the subject of consumerism. Me writing this post on the technology of blogs and you sharing it (hopefully) via email and social networks are all technologies too. Any kind of progress, or regress, depends on technology in some form.

But I don’t see consumerism as a technological problem any more than I see poverty, unemployment, cruelty, warfare, and other forms of human self-destruction and hypocrisy as technological problems. They are social and philosophical problems. We have always had the ability to solve them, but not the will, the maturity, or most cynically, the capacity as a civilization to put our collective interests ahead of our selfish ones.

Once a person chooses, for themselves, to commit to something, technology becomes an asset. But the technology can never make that commitment for us, as we always have a way, in our moments of weakness, to turn off the machines (At least until we ask Skynet to take over).

[Note: I don’t drink lattes, nor drive a BMW, nor have an iPhone 5]

9 Responses to “Can technology reduce consumerism?”

  1. Phil Simon

    Mixed feelings. Doesn’t an iPad obviate the need for a flashlight, an alarm clock, and physical books? My iPhone’s compass and level are very useful and, when I golf, I don’t need a separate GPS app.

    “Changes aren’t permanent but change is.”
    –Neil Peart, Rush

    1. Scott

      You’ll trash that iPad in 3 years (that’s the average ownership life of a mobile device in the U.S.) The replacement cycle for tech goods is madness when you step back and think about it. All of the items you mentioned last for decades.

      Your point is good though – of course some inventions and new products do generate enough goodness to outweigh whatever costs are involved, but very few products are made with that goal. It’s simply far less profitable to sell goods on the premise that users don’t need to upgrade.

      1. Phil Simon

        Agreed. Planned obsolescence is alive and well. Made to Break covers that.

  2. Sean Crawford

    Hi Phil, hi Scott:
    Debt? One of my little joys in life is living below my means. It even has an acronym: LBMM.

  3. Elisabeth

    I can recommend Techno-fix by Michael Huesemann for an in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of more technology to fix problems.

  4. Tyler

    I’m not sure the point of technology will ever reduce consumer intake. Each piece of technology is invented to solve a problem. However the issue is most problems humans have are self made. Its definitely a philosophical or psycho analytical problem in our culture pertaining to status and keeping up with the Joneses (or Kardashians I guess now? :()

    1. Scott Berkun

      The wrinkle is consumerism – the invention of a technology doesn’t require that every individual own it, or that it even exists as a “product”. We’re just so accustomed to thinking of “new tech” as being new things we own or put in our homes.


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