A little over 110 years ago Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he spelled out his now famous and well-known idea of “conspicuous consumption.” As Veblen argued, people conspicuously consume, buying silver wear and other luxury goods when cheaper stand-ins would do, because they desire to flag their social status.
Since the publication of Veblen’s book, people have invented many and multifarious ways of being noticed.
I have recently been thinking a great deal about the technological dimensions of self-presentation. Let’s call them technologies of conspicuous affection.
For several years, I’ve been talking about the role of conspicuous abstention in our society. You are sitting at a table with a group of people who are conversing. Paul brings up the fact that he watched Mad Men last night. He says the episode was keen. “Draper was a jerk. It was great.” Harold, who is also sitting at the table, begins to fidget. Everyone can sense his agitation. Finally, Harold feels the need to blurt. He seemingly just has to inform everyone at the table that he does not watch tv and, in fact, does not even own a tv, and life is much better tv-less, thank you very much. Hypothetically, Harold could have kept quiet and let the people who like Mad Men talk about Mad Men, but for whatever personal reason, he wanted or needed people to attend to his renunciation of a certain technology.
This is immodest conspicuous abstention, where someone informs others what he or she doesn’t do/own. It is probably more common among some slivers of society than others. Especially now that sustainability is chic, some see life as a series of teachable moments in which to educate others about the virtues of not owning a car, not eating meat, not frequenting Starbucks, not buying anything with styrofoam in it, not ever even stepping into a McDonalds unless it is for a pit stop on the highway. Yada, yada. “Even my dog is vegan.”
Conspicuous abstention is simply par for the course in some social circles. When confronted with a conspicuous abstainer, it is usually best to bite your hand and let the situation pass. FYI, abstainers don’t take kindly to being called killjoys!
Perhaps it is worth noting how central technology is to the things people conspicuously abstain from. Not owning a car is obvious enough on this score, but that choice often goes hand-in-hand with owning and advocating for another technology, namely the bicycle. (+10 points for a fixed gear bike.) The choice not to own a tv is often connected to Neil Postman-like or Robert Putnam-esque criticisms of what television has “done” to our society. Even people who eat meat may avoid McDonald’s because of its connection to factory farms, because its industrialized food is tasteless and unhealthy, and because it uses our societies complex technological systems to deliver sweet, syrupy drinks by the vat-load. One could argue that our lives are so thoroughly intertwined with technologies that every kind of choice is related to them in the kinds of ways I just enumerated, but it may be worth pondering how conspicuous abstention is connected to other, long-standing forms of public refusal of technologies, such as the traditional image of the Luddites.
Social media, or Web 2.0, is shifting the ground of conspicuity. Thirty years ago if you wanted to tell 150 of your friends what you did or did not like, you would have to call each of them on the phone or mail each of them a self-printed pamphlet, for instance, extolling the virtues of Magnum, P.I. and Tom Selleck’s short-shorts therein. Social media is really great in this way. It lets you quickly and easily tell everyone what you like (or don’t). As everyone knows, social media is so obviously good for this that Facebook created the “like” button, a technology for signaling our inclinations. We have entered the age of conspicuous affection.
(I’m sure that whole dissertations are being written right now on Facebook’s decision not to include a “don’t like” or “hate” button. Perhaps the company is simply worried about law suits around carpal tunnel resulting from all the clicking that would ensue such an invention.)
The full of weight of conspicuous affection became clear to me a few weeks ago when I was texting with my friend, Mike. We were talking about the weird things that people “like.” I was asking, why does anyone need to “like” NPR? Whenever I see that someone has pressed the NPR “like” button, it is almost always completely obvious that the person would be an NPR fan. That’s just the kind of person he or she is. “You mean, you like This American Life? You don’t say,” I note as I stare at the copies of Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Safran Foer on the person’s shelf.
But my friend pointed out that at least NPR is an organization that makes things. By liking NPR, you may learn more about new productions that you might want to check out. What’s really weird, he claimed, is that people “like” things such as reading and yoga, things that are not associated with any group or person but that are simply out there in the world. Social media technology allows us to flag things that we care for that others might never know we care for; that is, our affection would be invisible if we didn’t represent it through a signal.
Of course, you could just tell people these things. “I like to read.” But this might seem strange. If you said that in some social circles, people would get very quiet and visibly uncomfortable. They would think that you made some kind of joke that they weren’t getting. Why? Because everyone at the table likes to read. That’s just not the kind of thing people usually say out loud. But for some reason it is the kind of thing that some people “like.”
Jean Paul Sartre and other philosophers have claimed that the self, or the ego, is not something inside of us but rather something external in the world. For instance, Tony relates to himself in the same way you and I relate to Tony’s self. His self is something that everyone, including him, tells stories about, rather than being something inside of him that he has special access to. It is interesting to consider how social media allows us to construct ourselves and perhaps gives us a sense that we can have more control of the narrative about ourselves. This sense of control is almost certainly illusory. You can “like” Charles Dickens however much you want; your nearest and dearest will still know that you spend most of your free time with American Idol. Yet, Sartre argued that the ability to control others’ perceptions was something that everyone profoundly desired. The (bad) functionalist argument would go like this: And having some sense of this desire, tech companies created a technology to give some semblance of mastery . . .
This is the thing. Facebook created a button that allows us to signal our affections. At first blush, this button was to be used to strengthen social networks and increase use of the system. You post a photograph. I “like” it. You feel good that I gave you attention; you like that I “liked” it. The button also simultaneously allows us to spell out our identity. It lets us flag our fondness.
And people are pushing that button, again and again and again.