Why I Hope Conspicuous Consumption Dies in the Age of the Kindle

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.

First, the supply of status in a given society is fixed. If I go from being the 198,745,647th most popular person in the United States to the 198,745,644th most popular person, I must displace some others on the way up. In the game of status, not everyone can be a winner. Second, conspicuous consumption leads to an arms-race mentality that produces wasteful consumption. Every dollar or minute I spend pruning my outfit or adjusting my bookshelf is a dollar or minute that I will not be spending on something intrinsically enjoyable, like writing a blog post.

Somewhat ironically, this very subject is taken up in Infinite Jest! (There's a wonderful chapter on the rise and fall of the video phone, which creates an incredible social pressure for people to appear attractive onscreen, which sets off a kind of arms race -- purchasing masks and bodysuits to wear on the phone, and so forth.) But maybe I'm just mentioning that for status reasons. Who knows.