Some time ago, I saw a photo in my Facebook timeline stating that people who spend on material things are less happy than those who do so on experiences. Whether it’s true and backed up by research, it’s a sentiment many people will tip their hats to. The statement strikes against consumerism, but if it’s an admirable stance against excessive buying on the one hand, it’s not on the other.
Guided so, people would arrange a road trip with friends; go on a holiday with family; or travel to new places. Happy thoughts indeed. I am all for these things, but I still see an underlying danger in the “spend-more-on-experience” school of thought: the commodification of experience itself. It may help us turn our backs on (too much) consumerism, but the logic of spending is still intact: experience is something you buy and accumulate, just as you hoard shoes, toys, gadgets, books, toys, or what have you. This, then, represents the ultimate triumph of commodification; capitalism has commodified not only things but also our non-material experiences.
But do people actually think this way, that by spending time with family, friends, and traveling all over, they have commodified experience and behave somewhat the capitalist, who wants to accumulate more capital? Do people count their trips and experiences, just as businessmen go over their earnings and profits, and bother about the bottom line? Can we even and always equate the commodification of experience with that of material things?
Though the equivalence may not be absolute, and that there are certainly differences, I think we commodify our experiences, not (just) in the sense of counting and accumulating them, but (also) in how they enhance our personal cultural capital, our brand, as it were.
For some, posting on Facebook is innocent self-expression. But this remark ignores the relational context of the self; it does not operate on a vacuum; like many things, the cult of self-expression has social determinants. At any rate, self-expression in this case dovetails with the idea of the self on display, as William Davies writes in his book, The Happiness Industry.
Self-expression here is thus not just about the self per se, but more about its relationship to others. There used to be a time when people self-expressed by keeping a journal, which was as a rule not meant for public viewing. Today, however, people express themselves, but why does their entire Facebook friend list have to know where they are and what they are doing. It is true that we gain much experience, perspective, and insight when traveling, but why do other people have to know the fact via our social media pages? Isn’t it enough that we learned and saw a lot without having to shout it out? Or, something closer to home, why do I have to write this blog and make this public?
Perhaps this explains why some people, including I, go so gaga over taking photos of the places they go to. Indeed, it’s been lamented that people today no longer experience places the way they used to because their experience thereof is already mediated through the camera. Instead of seeing things and places with their own eyes and minds (if and however that is possible), they are more concerned with getting the perfect photo for that Facebook post, if not a selfie. They consume places with every click of the phone, and one shot or two no longer seems enough; they hoard photos the way businessmen hoards capital.
The value of a place lies not in itself but in photographs thereof, especially their level of their social media worthiness, their “postability,” their measure of “spectacle” a la Guy Debord. The superseding of the place or experience is captured at its most extreme in a line from one of my favorite TV shows, “if it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen.” The image stands for the experience or the event itself, implicating new notions of truth, among others, and its relationship to social media.
Contrary to the “social-mediatization” of experience is the notion of what has been called “immersive tourism,” which I take to mean roughly spending a lot of time in any place and getting to know it deeply. This, of course, is impractical. Even if we really wanted to, many of us couldn’t really spend, say, two weeks in a foreign country. The most, I think, we can do is to read the history of a place, and understand the meaning and significance of what see, instead of its value as a Facebook photo.
This is why I sometimes think I do not need to travel in order to learn about a place. Indeed, this is why I feel less of an itch to travel. I feel that I can learn more about the place by reading about it than just visiting for a day or two and taking photos thereof. We can always do both, of course, but how many of us actually read the history and culture of a tourist site before visiting it?
Of course, it’s not bad to accumulate as many experiences as we can. For what else would we be accumulating? What’s changed is how we experience our experiences, which are created, mediated, and expressed through technology, photographs, and social media.
There must be a progressive dimension to this kind of mediation, but as a true dialectician who sees both sides of the issue, it may also have a darker aspect: its erosion of the value of things and places in themselves at the expense of the self who consumes them and puts them on display. It helps us forget that things, places, and even other people have an existence independent of us: that they are not fodder for our self-on-display.
By all means, let’s take photos, but let’s not forget this fact.