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The Myth of the Death of the Consumer


To stop consuming is to stop communicating.


This morning I ran across two seemingly unrelated stories:

Is Happiness Still That New Car Smell?

-- New York Times, Oct. 21, 2009

The recession and a growing awareness of the environment are causing many people to reassess their automobile ownership. After more than a century in which an automobile represented the American dream, car enthusiasm may no longer be a part of Americans' DNA.

And in the same newspaper, this piece:

No Budget, No Boundaires: It's the Real You
-- New York Times, Oct. 21, 2009

In a simulated universe like,, or Second, the granddaddy of avatar-driven social networking sites, Ms. Rayna, an avatar on Second Life, and her free-spending cohort can quaff Champagne, teleport to private islands, and splurge on luxury brands that are the cyber equivalent of Prada waders or a Rolex watch. Real-world consumers may have snapped shut their wallets. But in these lavishly appointed realms it is still 2007, and conspicuous consumption is all the rage.

On the one hand, both of these stories are related by what the writers of each story separately refer to as modes of consumption during the recession. But they share a deeper, more profound connection that is less obvious, one that is related to a broader social theory of consumption.

An overt theme running through both stories is the death of "conspicuous consumption." In the case of the simulated universes, so-called "conspicuous" consumption is seen as a substitute for the "real" world's "conspicuous" consumption; the idea being expressed is that it compensates for something lacking in the real world. The connotation of compensation here is itself tied up with economics and the interplay between real and virtual.

But what does it mean to consume conspicuously anyway? If we understand what it means to be "conspicuous" then we can see that conspicuous consumption is itself an act of communication. To consume conspicuously is to be seen producing an expenditure, which presumably is a transaction of higher velocity, and so within the logical framework of the dominant social system it's a transaction of higher worth, power, and prestige. But consumption is, at root, a form of communication.

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