That troubling word, “consumer”

Jerry —  June 7, 2011 — 7 Comments

The genesis of my Relationship Economy thesis was a realization, back around 1994 when I was writing Esther Dyson’s monthly tech newsletter Release 1.0, that the word “consumer” made me really uncomfortable.

I followed that energy, and it proved invaluable. Ideas kept unfolding from that initial premise. I began to notice the consumerization of so many spheres of human activity, from how we educate our children to how we elect our governments and how we pray to our Gods. I paid attention to the language of marketing to consumers, to the metaphors and business models that had spun out as a result.

Like the REXcast I posted just before, this is a look at what started me down my current path.

Again, even more gratitude to Jean Russell for the camera work.



7 responses to That troubling word, “consumer”

  1. Very nice post, and I’ll reference it when I get round to writing about war metaphors in international aid. They are rife.

    Two thoughts:

    First, I don’t think that lawyers should (or even are) scared of taking down the blank face of corporate image, and portraying the bundle of vulnerable humans within. I’ve worked with corporates and governments, and I know that each is just a group of average human beings, trying to pay the rent, get laid, stave off death, be a good person, have a bit of fun along the way. Some might be less morally attractive than others, but no different than the range of people you might find at the local pub or soccer field. In fact, I get annoyed when I hear people rail against “corporations” or “the government”, because its the same objectification of groups as “the Jews” and “the Germans.”

    I think you’re less like to sue a bunch of vulnerable people, than you are a “corporation”.

    Second, “consumer” is relative. It’s not just now that we are all producers. We always have been. I go to the supermarket as a consumer, but use the food I buy to produce a meal for my family. My family consumers the meal, but uses it to restore their energies for going to work at school or the office, where they produce learning, the next generation of leaders, or payments on insurance claims, or whatever. They might even go to work on a farm, to produce the food, which gets fed to the supermarket, to be produce the meals that feed the farmers…

    The economy is a circle. “Producer” and “consumer” are two sides of a transaction. But before that transaction, the producers was someone else’s consumer, and after that transaction, the consumer will in turn become producer.

  2. Hey Jerry. If you’re not averse to approaching this cluster of ideas fissues from an anarchist / anthropological / cross-cultural perspective, I’d recommend the writings of David Graeber. He’s written a lot on theories of value, the framing of consumption, commodities, and human relations. Sounds quite similar to where your head’s at.

  3. So, to be clear: your objection is not primarily an aesthetic one, right? instead, it’s the path the word leads us down …

  4. Rob: completely. This is not an issue of liking the word or not, but all the implications around it. I got a lot of great feedback from this REXcast, so I’ll be amplifying my ideas here shortly.

  5. Justin, thank you! I had Graeber in my Brain, but didn’t know much about him yet. He’s definitely perfect to bring in here. Note especially a chapter from one of his essays, titled The Very Idea of Consumption.

  6. I have two problems with “consumer”, both long standing.

    1. Long before our primary identification was as consumers, we were citizens, neighbors, etc. The older IDs seem more preferable to me.

    2. Strictly speaking, there is no consumption in the physical world, only transformation,

  7. Yeah, that particular meme’s been bothering me for some time. Remember when our primary identification was as _citizens_, not _consumers?

    Doc Searls: Consume not, lest…

    And me: Might as well face it…

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