The phrase “I shop therefore I am” is generally taken to be an indictment of the consumerist years that sprung up during the mid-80s. Made popular by the artist Barbara Kruger, it came to express in a few words the feeling among social commentators of the time that people’s identities were becoming increasingly defined by what they bought, not just what they did and believed.
Today, the feeling is still present in all political quarters: the right lament the profligacy of people who spend beyond their means, while the left criticise consumerism as a means of extracting value from those at the bottom of the ladder and of keeping them in tow to the dominant elite.
While there’s some measure of truth in all of this, it’s also the case that consumerism is beginning to take on a wholly different shape, in many cases as a powerful force for the creation of new value (see Adam Lent’s pamphlet on ‘self-generated value' for more detail). Specifically here I’m referring to the way in which some acts of consumption are becoming blurred with – and are actually driving – acts typically classed as production.
Alvin Toffler and Don Tapscott famously used the term ‘prosumption’ a few years back to describe something similar, but what interests me is not the specific act (e.g. the consumer choosing the design of a t-shirt) but more the journey that people travel from sole consumers to active producers and the role that new consumption methods (e.g. hacking and 'collaborative consumption') play in this movement.
Does, for instance, the act of customising products like cards, clothes and food lead people to think more about what they could create themselves? Or does the ability to share existing assets like spare rooms and cars encourage people to think more entrepreneurially about what they could sell?
The below table spells out some initial thoughts about the different activities that might form this journey towards the creation of greater self-generated value (if it can even be described as a journey).