Tom Traill - 10 November 2016

Have we passed the point of peak stuff? Is social media changing the patterns of our consumption? James Wallman, in Stuffocation, suggests that technology is helping consumerism migrate from conspicuous consumption to the envy of experience. The practice of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – discretely (or otherwise) competing with neighbours and peers – used to be confined to material goods: having the smartest/greenest car, biggest house, newest mobile phone, branded clothing etc. Facebook, Instagram and the like have redefined consumer envy in terms of experience with social connection, broadening the playing field.  

It’s not what you have or what you’re wearing, but who you’re with, what experience you are sharing and where you are that matters most. Wallman’s thesis is that the experience, the moment, is the new social currency rather than material goods. Filtered pictures by the beach, showing-off trips, concerts and fancy meals carry more cachet for the Instagram generation. Apparently.

Regardless of whether this rather nauseating theory is a valid, Stuffocation suggests that, slowly, the tide is turning from the material to the experiential. Wallman highlights the increase in young people living in cities, forgoing space (and stuff) in exchange for access to opportunities, amenities and experiences. The rise in participation in triathlon, ‘tough-mudder’ type events and the increase in experiential marketing illustrate the new cool.

Is there an observable shift in the pattern of consumption? The chart provides some tentative support, showing a steady increase in the share of recreation and culture services in UK household consumption. However, as with many aspects of modern life, there is a strong suspicion that the national accounts are poorly equipped to capture the impact of social media content. The construction of the statistics is more comfortable counting the number of cars made and sold than evaluating the net contribution of an experimental theatre production, for example.

The notion of “peak stuff” chimes well with a research theme we introduced in the spring: “The End of Abundance[1]”, a topic to which we intend to return soon. The apparent glut of physical goods capacity is reflective of a world that is out of tune with the changing focus of western consumption. Much unused manufacturing capacity is commercially obsolete, either physically outdated/superseded, or tailored to a consumer market that is evaporating. Or both. In Japan, they call it ‘koto’ consumption. Everywhere, social media and new technology is transforming consumer preferences and appetites.

Data source: ONS

[1] Global Inflation Perspective, March 2016: to view this publication or take a trial of our publications click here

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