Experience economy and freedom

by Rob Horning

25 January 2006


Is cultural permission—- it’s okay to have plastic surgery, it’s okay to have sex, it’s okay to flaunt your wealth—really just a transmogrified form of repression rather than the liberation it’s purported to be? Are the forms of liberation consumerism promises typically “false” liberations, or is the experience of freedom always authentic in the mind of the person experiencing it? When retailers aren’t promising you the opportunity to be an individual, they are often promising you some form of enhanced freedom—freedom and individuality being the twin pillars of post-war American ideology (just ask Milton Friedman). These promises often take paradoxical forms; they assuage the anxiety they simultaneousy provoke, like all successful ads must: stir up a dilemma and then offer the solution to it, a la Listerine’s brilliant discovery of “halitosis.” The idea of freedom, of individuality as well, are easily detatched from the experience of these things, especially when it’s alleged to be available in reified form, with no active participation by the consumer required. These reified forms of the treasured values may function as their opposite in practice—an object that symbolizes freedom instead of freedom itself, a consumer choice that represents individuality instead of personal fulfillment itself. And pursiung these objects instead of the values keeps us searching in the wrong arena—in the buyosphere instead of the public sphere, in the mall rather than city hall. The effort it requires to realize freedom and individuality may in fact be beyond many of us who have been raised within a consumer culture: We are bred to prefer convenience and celebrate laziness and doing nothing rather than the difficulties that come with perpetually testing reality and questioning authorities as one must to realize freedom and individuality. Freedom at an individual level seems less a matter of entrusting to the magical invisible hand of the marketplace and passively reaping its reward than accepting that the absence of any mitigating factors hemming in the competitiveness unleashed by market worship requires one to be always alert, always defensive, always paranoid, always negating (being happy is not being free), resisting the attempts made to gull you or worse, cater to you and produce ersatz experiences for you. In the creepy marketing book The Experience Economy (which I don’t recommend anyone read—it’s about as exciting as a PowerPoint presentation and written in that deranged tone of bogus optimism that reeks of cynicism that is common to all management tomes) the authors encourage retailers and maufacturers to concentrate on pitching their products as experiences—the brand should conjure a lifestyle, it shouldn’t be a mere guarantee of quality or distinctiveness—in hopes of extending the power of brands into consumers’ memories and thus make anything we can remember a branded phenomenon. If people are going to remember things, someone should be able to profit from that and if memory is a form of media playing inside one’s head,  advertisers should be able to capitalize on it and embed promotional materials there. But these phony experiences, the latest manifestation of what Daniel Boorstin in >The Image dubbed pseudo-events, make the effort required to have any other sort of experience that mush greater. By packaging experience, the unpackaged variety becomes rarer, more elusive; it becomes more and more tempting to accept what is alreadt prepared for you whether or not it corresponds to your inclination. You are much more malleable than the world around you, so you change to suit what’s there. Interaction with the commercial world of “experiences” thus pulls us further away from whatever ontological self might have existed while all the time promising to actualize that self. What happens instead is that the self most convenient to the operation of the experience economy is produced in all of us.

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