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Sartre: unencumbered by stuff

10 Jan

SARTRE

Three months ago I’d never even heard the expression ‘the experience economy’.  Now it seems that every other journalist is talking about it. Of course, there’s nothing like Christmas for persuading people to angst about Stuff, how much we desire it, and what a waste of money, space and resources it is. Shouldn’t we be opting for experiences instead?

The week before last , the whole of the Radio 4 programme ‘You and Yours’ was devoted to the question of whether, in the west, we’ve reached a state of Peak Stuff. Some people phoned in to say that they were addicted to buying things. Others told us in detail how little new stuff they needed.

One lovely woman informed us that the only non-food item that she doesn’t buy from charity shops is her underwear.  Another made the sensible point that the problem is in part a generational one. As you get beyond middle age you may well find that you’ve got most of the stuff you want, and in any case you can’t find room for any more. The young are generally in a less fortunate position.

A psychologist on the programme reflected on the trend towards experiences rather than things.  On Facebook, he said, a photo of you and your friends having fun will nowadays get far more ‘likes’ than a picture of your new shoes.

I’m still not convinced that telling the rest of the world about your fabulous experiences is any more charming or worthwhile than bragging about your new acquisitions (see this blog, 11 November 2017). But I’m interested to discover that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre preferred to spend whatever money he had on the experience aspect of human life (as I might have expected from an existentialist, come to think of it).

Sartre’s aim was to pass through life unencumbered. He gave away books after he’d read them; the only objects he tried to hang on to were his pipe and his pen.  Most of the money he earned was redistributed to others. If he did keep any for himself, he preferred not to spend it on stuff,  ‘but on an evening out: going to some dancehall, spending big, going everywhere by taxi, etc etc – and in short, nothing must remain in place of the money but a memory, sometimes less than a memory.’  He was, apparently, a legendary tipper (War Diaries, p.244, 251).

I learned this from the excellent book, At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell (p.119-20). The inclination described is of course very much in line with the existentialist aspiration towards freedom – from possessions as well as from preconceived ideas.

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The experience economy – is it making us happy?

11 Nov

eating and shopping

Peak stuff is in the news again (see this blog, 31 March 2016). Market research and retail organisations tell us that the UK’s ‘experience economy’ is on the rise, with people spending more on meals in restaurants, days out and holidays, and less on tangible possessions. Retailers are in trouble, apparently. BHS, for example, has gone dramatically bust, and – more surprisingly – Apple recently reported its first revenue decline in 13 years.  At the same time spending on recreation and culture has gone up by 8%.

The reasons for this trend were discussed on Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ last Tuesday by presenter Martha Kearney and an academic specialising in consumerism. Rising inflation, the academic argued, means that these days people want to save their hard-won cash for essentials like food, rather than spending it on superfluous consumer durables. But what about the ‘experiences’ we’re opting for nowadays? Kearney asked. Don‘t they cost money too? Maybe it’s a question of compensation, the academic suggested. Pressures at work and school mean that families are spending less time in each other’s company, so when they do get a chance to be together they want to do something  a bit more interesting than slog round shopping centres. They’re compensating themselves for not seeing more of each other.

This discussion put me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between the experiencing self, who lives in the present, and the remembering self, who maintains the on-going story of our lives (this blog, 9 Oct and 11 Dec 2013). Maybe these days we’re investing more in moment-by-moment experiences, as Kahneman suggests we ought to be doing if we want to be happy.  We’re focussing more on living and less on remembering . 

But there again, maybe we’re not. We still want to tell stories about our experiences, both to ourselves and to each other. In other words, we still want to furnish our remembering selves with material. One thing Kearney and the academic agreed on was that experiences provide just as many opportunities for showing off as stuff does. Rather than displaying our new scatter cushions to our friends we’re deluging them with photos of our meals out and our holidays in Provence. Social media provide us with so many arenas in which to compete with each other on the experience front. And this, we’re beginning to learn, can actually make other people miserable. ‘Why aren’t I as happy as my friends A and B?’ is one of the most common reactions to postings on Facebook, we’re told. This, indeed, was probably one of Facebook’s original underlying purposes. ‘Get booking that holiday now!’ it screams at us. And it seems that we do, in ever increasing numbers.