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Physical objects are the exhaust that digital activity gives off
In the most recent issue of the Dirt newsletter, Michelle Santiago Cortés writes about how online shopping has become “carnivalesque and casino-like,” blurring the line between marketing strategies and scammy promotions in the interest of selling cheap merchandise: “It’s all about producing as much excess—in the form of profit or full closets or stacked makeup collections—for as little money as possible.” The convergence of Shein-style ultrafast fashion and social media content saturation has shrunk the gap between seeing something on the internet and having it in your house, and the physical items are often as flimsy as the digital material that initiates their purchase. “When you’re on the internet,” Cortés writes, “shopping is everywhere—its colorful designs and flashing displays beckoning you to detour from your scroll and into the check-out page. It’s the casino in the hotel lobby. The FYP that leads to a marketplace.” To add one more analogy: The internet is a funhouse full of trapdoors—portals to a byzantine network of logistics infrastructure that encircles the globe. We don’t fall through them so much as the network pushes stuff through them in the reverse direction, toward us.
“This is an era of Shopping as Entertainment—shopping not out of need, but to scratch an itch, to feel like you did something, to kill time,” Cortés writes. This has always been somewhat true; well before the internet existed, shopping was a leisurely pastime as well as a practical activity, with the process and the ultimate objective frequently muddled together (one function of the mall is to dull the shopper’s focus on specific goals and replace that with an experiential aimlessness). But e-commerce has bifurcated these two aspects of shopping, streamlining the practical part via increasingly efficient search, one-click checkout, and home delivery, while removing the physical context of brick-and-mortar retail, which supported the social dimension of shopping along with whatever other fun it was likely to deliver (this same transformation, it’s worth noting, has similarly afflicted many other activities as they’ve moved online). Describing various efforts to make online shopping more entertaining, Cortés outlines a version of e-commerce in which the ostensible purpose—obtaining stuff—is secondary to the experience of shopping. All those material objects that arrive on our doorsteps in cardboard boxes are just the exhaust given off by our digital meandering: a heightened form of content consumption with a bigger footprint in the physical world. But this exhaust is nonetheless essential: The act of shopping, however pointless, doesn’t satisfy any cravings without the heft of a real purchase behind it.
As the internet has grown to occupy more of our lives it has raised the possibility of fully dematerialized consumption—owning nothing (except maybe NFTs) and liking it. We all know by now, or should, that digital activity always has a physical shadow, in the form of the infrastructure that transmits it and the energy it consumes, but online shopping demonstrates that there’s a second layer to this materiality—some types of digital experience must exceed a minimum threshold of physical-world presence to matter at all. If you buy shoes in the Matrix, you buy them in real life. Likewise, all that food content on TikTok and Instagram depends on the premise that one day you’ll actually eat the food you’re looking at. The perpetual belief that we can virtualize everything—the Metaverse Fallacy—denies our embodiment and our enduring need for information to be backed by heft. Rob Horning recently wrote about Ozempic and the notion of “postconsumerist capitalism,” in which we pay to suppress our appetites rather than buying goods to satisfy them. That scenario feels like a more plausible version of dematerialization than digitally simulated reality does, but it too is deeply physical. To stop wanting actual stuff, we’d have to start by transforming our own bodies.
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