Saturday, January 29, 2005

Consumer vs. Producer

Identity is an interesting and evolving topic and theme, both in the real world and the online worlds. This post explores two conflicting societal influences on identity: consumer not producer mentality on the one hand while at the same time a bias for activity not passivity.

The consumer vs. producer mentality distinction drawn by JBS Haldane in his 1963 essay, "Biological Possibilities for the Human Species in the Next Ten Thousand Years" is especially true today. In America, our whole country and identity are built around the mighty consumer. As a barometer of national health, we look to how much the consumer is spending and two thirds of the US GDP is personal consumption. Some examples of this are the "Buy American" campaigns and the US flag with shopping bag handles as the iconic response to 9/11. The first problem is the economy being the most important (and only?) element of national well-being and second that spending is the most important aspect of the economy.

The deeper issue is that consuming is about being passive and responsive while producing is about being active and creating which is much higher up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We are happier and more fulfilled when we are active, creating and self-actualizing. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on Flow Experiences further documents that we feel most happy when we are engaged in a flow experience - an experience where we lose track of time and what's around us, being completely engaged in the activity at hand. A flow activity is one that you perceive to be a worthwhile endeavor and that is challenging but not overwhelmingly stretching for you.

But how can we understand the passivity of consuming together with the bias towards action, the social hypnosis that we have to be DOING something to feel good about ourselves, instead of feeling good about ourselves because of who we are being. When asked who they are, people will usually relate labels corresponding to the different activities of their life, "I work in product management at Company X, I am a parent, I am a skier," as opposed to the broader qualities of who they are as a person, "I am a compassionate inquisitive person."

The problem is that we are driven to action even when the action is purposeless, just acting for the sake of action itself because we believe action is better than non-action. Action is not examined in the broader picture of goals or how it relates to being. Consuming is an action but producing is a higher order action. Being is a higher order behavior than uninformed acting. Action is more fulfilling when it is examined and contemplated in the broader sense of its contribution to our being and when we are fully present to and engaged in it. Contemplation also leads to the appropriate individual balances between producing and consuming and between being and acting.