Consumer Culture

Understanding the relationship between the concepts of self, consumer culture, possessions, and identity widen the study of an object to an epic proportion—reading the iPhone through the lens of Belk and through the concepts of environmentalism raise necessary questions

Russell Belk’s contribution to the field of material culture studies is particularly significant in the context of the iPhone. Belk’s assertion, “that possessions are incorporated into self-concept” gives the most basic of overviews of his work. Belk studies how the self and objects are related, and how the individual shapes identity based on those relationships. To contextualize how the iPhone might fit into Belk’s thinking, consider Belk’s words from “Possessions and the Extended Self”:

“[E]xternal objects become viewed as part of self when we are able to
exercise power or control over them, just as we might control an arm or a leg. In the case of tools, instruments, and weapons, envisioning the basis for the extended self metaphor is easy.”

“No Name Design” via Franco Clivia


Since the basic concept of the telephone is that it exists as a tool for human communication, it follows that, given the evolution towards portability and now, ubiquity, that the mobile phone could be considered to the modern human, an almost second-nature type tool like a basket for a hunter-gatherer.

Russell Belk  states in his article, “The Extended Self in the Digital World”, “The Internet and many digital devices free us from the constraints of time and place and create other, virtual, times and places.”  While the devices have their own kind of “intelligence,” the effect they have on their owners is profound.  The sharing and social media components of smartphone technology also have implications on the extended self.  Belk states, “many new possessions and technologies…create different ways through which we can meet, interact with, and extend our aggregate selves through other people while experiencing a transcendent sense that we are part of something bigger than us alone (Belk 494).   The desire to connect with other people is part of human nature.  The social media juggernaut Facebook, much like corporate radio, have realized what Matt Silverman records in his interview with author Douglas Rushkoff: “the people paying are marketers. That makes them the customers. And it means [users] are the product being delivered to those customers.”

As technology trends further towards ubiquity, mobile technology shrinks in size, increases in multi-functionality, and becomes easier to come by.  Service providers offer free phones and free upgrades that accompany contracts and contract renewals.  A compulsive relationship to technology and media seems to evoke the words of Marx recorded in Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project:

“All the physical and intellectual senses…have been replaced by the simple alienation of all the senses, the sense of having.”


via CBC books

This concept of alienation is especially interesting considering Belk’s ideas of the extended self.   Belk’s ideas about virtual brand communities draw an interesting corollary:  Belk states that normally, aggregating one’s sense of self with branded goods usually requires ownership; in the digital world, this aggregation can happen in virtual environment in which the user or consumer can engage brands without having to invest capital, creating a virtual sense of affiliated identity.  The iPhone bridges the gap between physical and digital possession- one can physically possess an iPhone and then digitally possess all sorts of content.

This reading of the iPhone diverges wholly from older concepts of the telephone in many ways- early phones existed as stationary objects, mounted to a wall and hard-wired into the circuitry inside a building, making the object much less personalized.  The evolution of technology from early telephone concepts leading up to the moment in time represented by this object shows a reshaping of the form and the role of the telephone in culture.  The major shift is that of purpose: the telephone was a device for communication.  Early cellular telephones, car phones, and pagers were devices made to enable interpersonal communication.  While the smartphone is a device for communication, it is also a device for entertainment, advertisement, shopping, and distraction.  The iPhone is a type of status symbol, unto itself.  There are those who have iPhone and those who do not have iPhones.  The values of the Apple Company imply creativity, business savvy, and an admission into a type of status of cool  in the products they sell, creating a binary dynamism between those who buy-in to the Apple lifestyle and those who do not.

On the other hand, the iPhone is a valuable tool.  It synthesizes the functionality of many other tools, thus allowing users to having a myriad of options available to them at the press of a button.  There is nothing inherently wrong with innovation.  The success of the modern age stems from innovation­– the average human life expectancy has increased with the innovations of the last two hundred years.  Science and technology offer the promise of a better life and a more informed population.

The ecological aspect of understanding the iPhone should also be considered as a part of studying the cultural impact and heritage of this object. Looking at the concept of ecological foot printing with respect to this object, one can learn a lot about what kind of effect it has on the planet and its people.  Writer and engineer Jim Merkel writes in his book, Radical Simplicity about the call for examining patterns of consumption and looking at how the individual impacts the global community with his or her consumption habits.  Merkel uses some mathematical concepts to determine the bioproductive area of the planet, subtracting areas that cannot produce vegetation and areas covered by water or development.  With a figure of 6.7 billion humans, the bioproductive area allotted for each would be 4.7 acres.  Those people earning higher than $100,000 annually use more than 60 acres of bioproductive space annually (Merkel 81-84).  Merkel suggests that the solution to the planetary issues of over consumption and widespread income discrepancies would be to consume less, and generate less capital (Merkel 52).  Such a concept suggests a radical shift in socioeconomic ideology.


via Tom Newton