1. Consumerism is sustained by the ideology that freedom of choice is the only relevant freedom; it implies that society has mastered scarcity and that accumulating things is the primary universal human good, that which allows us to understand and relate to the motives of others. We are bound together by our collective materialism. Choosing among things, in a consumer society, is what allows us to feel autonomous (no one tells us how we must spend our money) and express, or even discover, our unique individuality. The belief that more is better carries over to this sphere so that making more choices seems to mean a more attenuated, bigger, more successful self. The more choices we can make and broadcast to others, the more of a recognized identity we have. We are winning.
If we believe this, then it seems like good policy to maximize the opportunities to make consumer choices for as many people as possible. This will give more people a sense of autonomy, social recognition and personal meaning. Considering the amount of time and space devoted to retail in the U.S., it seems as though we are implementing this ideology collectively. The public policy goals become higher incomes, more stores, and reliable media through which to display personal consumption. This will yield a population that is fulfilling its dreams of self-actualization.
2. But when you add the possibility of ego depletion to this version of identity, it no longer coheres. If we think we want more choices to manifest who we really are, then it can’t be that having to make more choices exhausts our capability to make decisions we will stand behind over time. Rational choice theory obviously depends on the chooser being rational; but if making choices depletes the capability for rational thought, then the whole edifice crumbles. Instead of elaborating a more coherent self through a series of decisions, one establishes an increasingly incoherent and disunified self that is increasingly unpredictable and illegible to others.
As this NYT piece by John Tierney explains, sustaining a sense of self requires constant energy; choice making drains that energy, blurring the outlines of the self we are projecting to others and ourselves. We lose the energy to think about who we are and act accordingly, and we begin acting efficiently instead, with increasingly less interest in coherence, justice, consistency, morality, etc. Economists would have us believe their is an authenticity in efficiency itself, that it is the real underlying all of our incentive-driven behavior. But it may be that efficiency is merely part of pre-consciousness; it is a residual, a placeholder, what remains when subjectivity can’t be achieved.
3. Considering ego depletion and its possible link to impulsivity, one can see how overloading individuals with opportunities to choose can become a deliberate strategy to encourage exhaustion and render people easier to control. As decision fatigue sets in, morality and personal idiosyncrasies are overridden by one’s underlying desire for conservative efficiency, which is eminently predictable. Maximizing choices doesn’t foster autonomy and creativity in self-realization; it does the opposite, reducing people to more or less uniform impulses. Tierney points out: “Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as Jonathan Levav, the Stanford professor, demonstrated in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars.” The more options and so forth we are confronted with, the less resistance we can mount and the more likely it is we can be brought to the decision that the other parties want us to reach. Complexity, elaborate customization possibilities, are a strategy for controlling people, not for giving them the opportunity to mirror their uniqueness in a particular commodity. Customization is a mode of control rather than liberation.
Likewise, consumerism generally is a control strategy based on exhaustion, not fulfillment. “When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops, too,” Tierney writes. And without will, there is no individual self, no responsible citizen.
4. Franco Berardi’s theory of “cognitarian subjectivation” seems to be about this: “Today it is the social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods. The social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of networked production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the cognitive class.” So what is at stake in the attention economy is this level of energy that individuals can commit to forming a resisting self. The economy is being organized increasingly to harness the energy we spend making consumerist choices to create our identity within consumerism’s code; we are being driven to spend energy in that way — in making choices that deplete us emotionally. The mode of exploitation is oversaturation.
But we are articulating our identities not outside attention-depleting media but within them. As Bauman points out in Consuming Life, we make ourselves into commodities to complete for attention in a consumer society, in which recognition is parceled out chiefly to commodities and all evaluative criteria are derived not from morality or religion but from consumer markets. Since we fashion ourselves as personal brands, we insert ourselves deliberately into broadcast media rather than, say, constructing ourselves within a local community, whose limits and contingencies we accept as the price of a coherent self. Personal branding promises the limitless self, along the same lines as the fantasy of the growing self made possible by the endless series of choices. What Berardi declares can’t be repeated enough, as a form of ideological inoculation: “Acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.”
Information kills pleasure. It requires processing that proscribes pleasure but seduces us with the possibility that processing can be pleasure — it can, but only if you will yourself into autism. (If you become an “infovore,” as Tyler Cowen calls it.
The surfeit of information makes it harder and harder for us to be, to emerge as a self from the morass of choice. Efforts to accelerate consumption should be regarded with suspicion — these do not help us achieve more; they revert us to the pre-identity of efficiency and serve the prerogatives of capital. As Berardi puts it (cryptically): “Capital becomes the generalized semiotic flux that runs through the veins of the global economy, while labor becomes the constant activation of the intelligence of countless semiotic agents linked to one another.” In the future, we’ll have an economy based on the labor of sociality in social media networks that are subsumed by capital: that is, we’ll fight for attention on Facebook, etc., and that effort will be harvestable as data by the firms that own the networks, who will sell us tools derived from that data to abet our struggle for more attention. “Semiocapital” is the amalgam of attention-grabbing uses of language and other signs, and the conduits for circulating them. It is the value in being able to guarantee moments of short-circuiting decision overload in a population; to possess semiocapital is to have is the ability to overwhelm with novelties, the power to implement fashion change at an increasing rate.