Many centuries ago when I was an undergrad student, I was sitting in a communications course analyzing, as I recall, that most obvious method of ideological communication in a society obsessed with automobiles: the bumper sticker. In particular, we were talking about the phrase, “he who dies with the most toys wins.”
A tad materialistic, maybe?
I think about this occasionally because I’m really sensitive to the language that’s used in everyday discourse, because I think that it says a lot about our perspective as a society. In particular, as everything we use shifts progressively into the world of new media, and the music and books and movies we purchase arrive by way of download, I’ve found myself immediately concerned by the fact that verbs such as “listening,” “reading,” and “watching” are replaced by the umbrella usage of “consuming.” I’m sure you’ve heard this used if you’re a bit geeky at all, or even if you’re not. The phrase came as a natural result of developing online methods of carrying data. Much of the data that a website, for example, contains is referred to as “content.” Thus, when we read or watch of listen to the content of a website, we are said to be consuming the content.
The reason that this bothers me is that consuming something is not the same as engaging something. Consuming something is the result of an appetite. The verb carries the connotation of absorbing, using up, or devouring. I don’t want the things that I write to be consumed, because then my words and thoughts are simply one more way of temporarily quenching one’s appetite. I want my readers to engage what I write: to read the post or story or article, think about it, and engage in conversation about it, ideally with their friends and hopefully with me as well. Consuming is none of those things. Consuming is selfishly sucking something up and being done with it.
Consuming is utilitarian, and art of any medium should never, ever be used in a utilitarian manner.
I think that this phrase is the natural result of a culture that places a price on everything and everyone, and transforms every medium of expression into a commodity. My words and your words…or your music, photographs, painting, or however you express yourself…are not commodities created simply to be sold. Our work is more valuable than that. Our thoughts are more valuable than that. When our thoughts are consumed, they are treated as less than what they are. Or than what we are.
“Consuming content” robs us of the value that engaging and discussing the thoughts and works of others could bring. I really think that we should change that phrase, because it shapes the way we think. When we think we want to consume something, we must first possess it. That implies that we always want to possess more as we devour more.
Perhaps he who dies after having consumed the most content wins? That’s not really the culture that I want to be in. Do you?