Against Consumerism

    I’ve written before about my love for Iron Man 3. In it, Tony Stark faces the hard question of personal identity. Who is he? Who is Iron Man?

    At first glance, the answer would seem to revolve around his suit. Iron Man is the guy who wears the super-powered outfit — so as Tony’s anxiety escalates, he surrounds himself with more and more suits, gradually walling himself inside a fortress of armor.

    But this is not the truth. As all of these suits are stripped away, Stark finds himself solving problems with creativity, ingenuity, and effort. In that, he finds his real identity: he is the mechanic, the one who creates.

    This resolution isn’t the rejection of his technology, it is the recognition that the process of creation — not the artifact — is the substance of what technology and humanity is about. Instead of finding solace in the artifacts he has created, he finds solace in his ability to continue to create and transform.

    This is also a core idea of the brilliant Lego Movie. For the Lego people, the essence of heroism is not about holding onto things which can make them safe, it is about learning to see the world as a platform for creativity and play and construction. The moment of enlightenment in the movie is the realization that all of life is play — that all things are constructable and may be transformed.

    In that direction lies freedom. In the other direction lies consumerism.

    When it comes to technology, our society seems to be caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, we have cheerleaders for the latest gadget, seeing technological advancement as a matter of fashion and lifestyle. Their engagement with technology is about waiting for a larger screen, a glitzier watch band, a sleeker profile. On the other hand, we have the reactionaries who fear that every new thing threatens their humanity. Their engagement with technology consists of looking for something to fear or protest.

    These two responses — consumerism and reactionism — are both incredibly unhealthy. Instead of seeing technology as an outgrowth of our humanity, they approach technology as something alien and foreign to us. As such, they cannot engage with it in any meaningful way. They are living like Tony Stark, walling themselves inside a fortress of technological artifacts.

    I suspect that consumerism is responsible for widespread ennui, depression, and disengagement. It is an answer which does not satisfy.

    But neither does reactionism. Going to the woods only satisfies if it provides the opportunity to chop our own wood, to fell our own trees, to hunt for our own food. In other words, it only satisfies if it gives us the opportunity to engage in technological work and creation.

    Few reactionaries make it that far. Instead, they retreat to an artificially constructed world of technological remnants from a different era. Perhaps they use books instead of ebooks, maybe they use TVs instead of computer screens. This is no different than consumerism of a different kind — the operation of fashion and lifestyle choices in a more unusual and self-deceptive way.

    Those who have truly gone to the woods — like Kevin Kelly, like many of the Amish — know the value of technology, and know the joy of technological creation. They do not seek to consume, they seek to produce. They do not seek lifestyle, they seek creation.