by Conor Clarke
Matt Yglesias and James Wolcott are worried about the state of conspicuous consumption in the age of the Kindle. Matt is reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest on his Kindle, which is pretty convenient for a book that weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. But Matt doesn't get the signaling benefits of the dead-tree edition; that is, he doesn't get to show the rest of the world that he's reading such a hefty, ponderous tome. What's going on here? Wolcott writes:
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices.
Well, let's not get carried away! First, I think Derek Thompson, Julian Sanchez and others are making a decisive point when they note that technology has enabled many fantastic new ways of being a snob. We have facebook lists of our favorite books, and Twitter feeds to discuss all the titles filling the the memory of that new Kindle. (There was a day last week when everyone was tweeting fake first sentences of famous novels. It occurred to me that, while I've never come anywhere close to finishing Mrs. Dalloway or Pride and Prejudice, I know their first sentences and can easily feign expertise!)
But I have a bigger concern here: Even if conspicuous consumption were on the way out, I'm not sure why anyone would mourn its death.
The original concept of conspicuous consumption, introduced by Thorstein Veblen, was all about envy and status: You had a generation of rich individuals whose basic consumption demands were easily met, so they turned to forms consumption that made them appear wealthier or smarter or savvier in the eyes of others. But there were, and are, two big problems with this.