This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.
Let us consider the ultimate artifact of physical popular culture circa 2019: The Museum of Ice Cream. Launched in 2016 in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District as a temporary interactive art exhibit, the Museum of Ice Cream has since opened exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami. As a pop-up, the museum is easy to replicate; more than 1.5 million people have visited its rock-candy caves, unicorns, and swimming pools filled with rainbow sprinkles made from inedible plastic. The Museum of Ice Cream has stuff you can look at, and yet is not quite a museum. You can buy actual ice cream and other dessert-themed kitsch there, but it’s not just a store. It is instead an experience.
Experiences became the quintessential unit of consumerism in the 2010s. Buying just any “stuff” — useless material artifacts — was the mistake of the 2000s. We instead now test out new technologies, subscribe to digital services, and spend our money booking reservations for experiences, which might range from obscure vacation destinations to arduously locavore tasting menus and access to spaces in which unique sensory perceptions occur — kind of like movies but in real life, a la the Museum of Ice Cream. These experiences are often primarily defined by the opportunity to document them, the digital images of Instagram replacing our need for other souvenirs.
Buying “stuff” was the mistake of the 2000s. Experiences became the quintessential unit of consumerism in the 2010s.
At the end of the decade, there are many experiences on offer: The Color Factory, where you can take selfies against brightly saturated backdrops; Meow Wolf, where you can take photos of surrealist sculptures; the avant-garde restaurant Vespertine, where you can eat (and Instagram) food that doesn’t look like food; and Airbnb Experiences, through which you can hire a local to give you a tour of a food market or play with their dog.
It’s enough to make you not want to experience anything ever again. We went from consuming objects to consuming experiences because the internet took over so many of the interactions that constitute our daily lives. To Instagram has become to possess; by Instagramming, you are adding to your lifestyle portfolio, a suite of compelling imagery and a compendium of tasteful experiences that have become currency in social life, dating, and work. Or, if you excel at it, a career path all its own for influencers. Given the preponderance of digital life, what good is a thing if you’re not going to broadcast it? And why hold onto something long term if you only need to document it once?
The so-called experience economy is in part a millennial phenomenon. A 2016 survey by Harris Poll found that 78% of millennials “would choose to spend money on a desirable experience or event over buying something desirable.” But experiences are also one of the few things that younger people can easily consume. The fallout of the financial crisis kicked off the decade, meaning that those who entered the job market around that time suffer 34% lower wealth levels than if the recession hadn’t happened, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Millennials also have higher student debt and 8% lower levels of homeownership than previous generations.
The decade has seen the wholesale invention of digital luxury, a facet of the cultural economy that will only expand in the future.
You can’t buy stuff if you don’t know where you’re going to put it, and it’s harder to invest in lifelong possessions (dishware, furniture, vehicles) if you’re not sure you’re staying put — we could be forced to move at any time because of a job, relationship, or just inevitable gentrification. Digital artifacts don’t take up any space on your mantle or kitchen countertop and moving them is easy because all you own is your phone and laptop anyway. And startups like Zipcar, Rent the Runway, and Feather give us access to cars, clothes, and furniture only when we need it. These goods, too, have become ephemeral experiences.
It’s not just that the financial crisis forced people to consume fewer material goods. This new form of consumption was also encouraged by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who have relentlessly commodified digital space that was previously freer and more open. These days we pay for email storage, cloud drives, and website hosting, not to mention digital-only goods like custom layouts, apps, and subscriptions. For the advanced digital consumer, there are Fortnite skins and speculative cryptocurrencies. Even the most elite of new consumer products are basically immaterial — see Peloton and Mirror, wall-mounted screens that broadcast real-time workouts so you don’t have to go to an actual gym. The decade has seen the wholesale invention of digital luxury, a facet of the cultural economy that will only expand in the future.
Social media has made us value our possessions and experiences not as considered parts of our identities but as commodities in a marketplace that is made visible all around us by social networks, measured by likes and shares. Inherent value is gauged not in personal emotional satisfaction but popularity. Even traditional possessions are destabilized by their inclusion in the digital-sharing economy: Is an apartment really yours if you’re Airbnbing it?
The gradual flush of material goods is associated with trendy minimalism and the Marie Kondo-inspired lifestyle of living with less. But in this case, less really is more. It’s not that we’ve solved materialism; we’re not any happier than we were buying objects. We just project the same anxieties onto immaterial goods, which inevitably disappoint us in turn, inspiring desire, greed, and jealousy just the same.