One of the most interesting social phenomena today in modern technological society is the tendency of people, particularly young people, to use their purchasing power to buy experiences rather than things. A lot of people today rather rent things and use things on a temporary basis, rather than actually own things. And there are various reasons that have been given for this. But for the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on one stream of thought. People need novel focused active experiences, in order to pull themselves out of the ongoing numbness from all the frictionless mediated experiences they encounter living in our technologically-transformed world. In more traditional natural environments, there is a lot of sensory variety and, therefore, a lot of experiential variety to be had living in fixed spaces. In such environments, travel is nice, but it is a bonus for most people (with the exception of nomads) and not such a necessity as it is for people today. Nowadays, people use the transformative shock of travel to pull themselves out of their increasingly robotic work, study and general life routines.
But travel is not the only type of experience that is purchased today. Exercise classes, yoga classes, massage, martial arts and all experiences that deal directly with physical stimulation. Music is heard on You Tube, Spotify and Pandora, and not from objects that are owned such as compact discs. Granted there is a revival in the purchases of vinyl records, but this still does not touch the lives of most people today. People don’t bother, in most cases, to own hard copy photos anymore. They just keep photos archived on their smartphones and computers. And, of course, why buy a car, when you can take Uber and Lyft almost any place you could want to go locally.
The key is to travel light on the journey of life today. A lot of possessions are experienced today as a burden, something that holds a person down and prevents him from really living. Translated into the language of my philosophical model, people don’t want to have to bother with a lot of defined discrete figures in their lives. Extensive ownership of things requires an ongoing commitment to them and an ongoing commitment to a defined discrete place to keep them, to store them. Traditionally, in our capitalist society, accumulating a lot of possessions has not only been a sign of success, but a demonstration of one’s capacity for commitment. Having a place to store one’s things is an extension of one’s personal gravity. One’s things demonstrate who one is on an ongoing basis. Valued things are not easily discarded and neither is one’s sense of self as emblemized by what one owns. And having a predictable source of stimulation of self, such as things over time, is itself an important possession, defined discrete figures that allow one to determine one’s place in society, so that one can have a productive occupational role and sustained bonded relationships both in terms of family and friends. So possessions can be not only a result of success, but also a sharpened signal to a person to indicate how to move along a defined path of success.
Many young people today travel light not only in terms of possessions but also in terms of relationships. People float in and out of sexual and romantic relationships. People move a lot for work today, so that it becomes harder to sustain strong family relationships and friendships. Speaking of work, employees have no expectation of lifetime commitment to jobs. When new experiences are the goal, novelty and variety are what matters in sex, romance, friendship, family and employment. Yes, even family. Look at all the blended families that are being formed after divorce.
It has been stated that one reason that young people have turned against ownership is that modern capitalism has been seducing people to buy a lot of things they don’t need to keep the economies humming and that a lot of the stuff is junk anyway. Perhaps this has an element of truth to it. Many people in their parents’ generation had acquired so much stuff that they were drowning in their possessions. That being said, I still feel that on a deep level, the problem has really been a lack of organic stimuli from more traditional more natural living environments. Organic experiences give people the flowing blendable continual stimuli that they need, and when people can have such experiences, they don’t need what becomes a tension-pocket of things to try and connect with the external world..
And yet having experiences divorced from the commitment of ownership can be problematic. Experiences come and go. They can make imprints on us, but when we are simply the consumers, we are not making and preserving any significant imprints on the surfaces of the fields of experience that surround us. In recreational activities, when we buy things to own, we are actually making an imprint, showing our taste both to ourselves as well as to the people around us. To the extent that it is a lasting possession, it becomes a preserved imprint both on ourselves and on others. When we buy a lot of similar items, we develop what would be called a collection. Whether it is stylish clothes or old books, stamps, coins or works of art, these collections reveal a lot about ourselves both to ourselves and others.
On another level, our possessions help to ground us in our fields of experience in the external world. In a strange way, they mirror and model for us, as we aspire to the mass, matter and substance in the things that we hold. So that we don’t end up floating through our numbing modern technological living environments like ghosts. By imitating the physicality of things, it allows us to make and preserve imprints in the external world and then to help us make a surrogate immortality in preparation for death.
Yes, there is no doubt that too many things can crowd us, particularly if they are junk. We call people with too many things hoarders. They are people with an addiction to things. Piles of possessions, lots of clutter that leads to the creation of tension pockets, disjunctive juxtapositions of simply too many things leading to visual abrasive friction. But a rejection of possessions as manifested particularly among young people today can also be pathological. A desire for life experiences is healthy. But experiences without commitment in the form of possessions, similar to experiences without relationships can lead in the end to a sense of emptiness. Meaningful possessions and meaningful relationships are basically committed experiences. Experiences that give us grounding and stability as we pass through the narrative of our lives.
© 2019 Laurence Mesirow