“The Rise of Consumption and the Demise of Causality” (essay)

“The Rise of Consumption and the Demise of Causality”


Emanuel Pastreich

There are two enormous challenges today that seem unrelated and yet perhaps can be directly connected through a more profound consideration of the impact of technology on society: the rise of consumption culture and the demise of causality in our thinking, specifically with reference to the impact of our actions on the environment.

The first challenge is the challenge of greed and consumption. There is a deep need among people to consume that has assumed a crisis level in advanced industrial nations, reaching a level completely out of line with either the economic situation (which is dire) or human needs. That need to consume is spreading rapidly. It is common to attribute this situation to “greed” without much consideration for what it is that generates greed, how that act has its own social, historical and even physiological aspects.  

Although we tend to refer to this behavior as “materialism” I am very thankful to Peter Doran for pointing out that the madness of consumption is, if anything, a move away from the material. We consume by paying less attention to the materiality of the object and more to its numerical value (how many consumed) or its associations: stature, sufficiency and good times. As you can see from these advertisements I recently photographed, the objects themselves are not important, but rather the connotations of a mythic life is central. The increase in spending on Gucci luxury goods has done little to raise awareness of fine handcrafts. If anything, I suspect the quality of Gucci goods has declined significantly.

Not really about possession!

Thinks to touch, not so much to possess. To be associated with.

But back to technology: computers do not really have desires, not in the sense that humans do. But they are an essential need: to secure access to electricity. In fact, the growing global networks of supercomputers that underlie how  things really work have that essential need: to consume electricity.

Humans do not seem to be able to slow this process of growing consumption down. I wonder whether there is some relationship between the need to consume electricity for computers and the increasing demand that humans consume things? Might it be possible the transformation of our society into a system for consumption goes beyond the simple greed and need of individuals, or even groups of individuals, having its roots in a more complex mixing of technological and human elements? I think the topic deserves serious consideration, especially as much of the consideration of this problem stops at the level of  “people are greedy” without  a consideration of what makes them that way. Might it be that the drive to consume, to desire. is converging with the needs of computers, the needs of networks, to circulation information or electricity, to consume?

Of course desire, or greed, has been with us for a long time, but it might be possible that we are entering to a new phase, something far beyond anything we have encountered before.

The second challenge we face as we try to come to terms with the environmental crisis is the complete inability of most people to put two and two together regarding the degradation of the environment. It seems that we cannot link in our minds our daily actions, like running the air conditioner, buying coffee in disposable to plastic cups and living in large houses while driving large cars, with the destruction of the atmosphere, the land and the oceans.

And yet, it should not be that hard to figure out the link, the causal relationship.  I would argue that many of us know there is  something profoundly wrong and it can be traced back to us.

So I wonder whether something odd it taking place today in our society that weakens our ability to see the consequences of our actions, or to focus in on them. Perhaps it is something in how we perceive information, and how we process it, that deadens our sense of causality, that sense of how what happens here affects something over there.

To start with, the Internet and the computer have brought about a radical form of mechanical reproduction on such a large scale. Images are reproduced without effort or expense and circulated seemingly free. It is great to have access to all that information for free, but that every act degrades the value of any one image or symbol, including images and symbols we hold dear.

As a result, the value of images and texts have been profoundly degradedthrough a Gresham’s Law of information. We might recall also  Andy Warhol’s classic series “Car Crash” in which he demonstrates that the horror of a scene is much diminished through its constant reproduction on a small scale. Somehow, even the shocking movie on climate change An Inconvenient Truth is undermined, turned into just another product for consumption through the process.

Another aspect of the change in perception can be traced back to the move from analog to digital means of reproducing information such as images, sounds and texts. As we collect and display visual information entirely in a digital format, the sense of causality is much diminished in the minds of people.Without some sort of analog process, images and movies are related only to what we observe in terms of images, not in terms of process.

That shift in the medium profoundly undermines our sense of causality and therefore reduces our ability to put together what happens here with what happens over there. We are not very aware of this shift, this move away from causality, but we can see it in our popular culture. Shifts in perception are, by their nature, invisible to us.

2 responses to ““The Rise of Consumption and the Demise of Causality” (essay)

  1. Isaac June 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Consumption as moving away from the material – What an interesting insight. I’ve been thinking about this recently. It really wouldn’t be so bad if we actually buy what we want and develop an appreciation for it. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. We seem to buy more, but value less.

  2. Verdell Babineaux March 10, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    The first modern air conditioning system was developed in 1902 by a young electrical engineer named Willis Haviland Carrier. It was designed to solve a humidity problem at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. Paper stock at the plant would sometimes absorb moisture from the warm summer air, making it difficult to apply the layered inking techniques of the time. *

    Head to our blog site as well

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