Virginia Postrel: What You Buy Is Who You Are

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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35 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    It feels like, once upon a time, we defined ourselves by what we did.

    Maybe that’s not true. It’s certainly never been true during my conscious lifetime… but it *FEELS* like things didn’t used to be like this.

    It seems to me to be better to define oneself by what one does than by what one purchases/owns.

    But, I suppose, if one never really does anything, one has nothing to define oneself by.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      I went to lunch and wrote a memo!Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Jaybird says:

      Ironically, that is what is happening here. One group of people is identifying itself by what it does, another by a similar thing it does.

      And then there’s Virginia Postural and those sitting at home (or work) and reading her, who are identifying those same people by what they have or have not purchased, clucking softly, and lamenting that everyone else self-identifies by what they purchase and not what they do.Report

      • I don’t really see Postrel as lamenting the trend, just arguing that it’s there.

        I do find her argument a bit ahistorical. I think what she describes has been around in some guise ever since mass production and consumption became a thing (which I admit is also kind of an ahistorical statement, but one I think is more justified). She makes a nod to conspicuous consumption, but only as something altogether different from what she’s describing. I’d say it’s part of the same phenomenon and that conspicuous consumption wasn’t always only about keeping up with the Joneses.

        Same thing with her point work cultures. That’s not new to a waged economy and, I suspect, not new to pre-waged economies.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

          Defining yourself by consumption always existed in some form since the consumer society came into existence in the 19th century, it might even be older. We know that the citizens of Rome and Constantinople divided themselves into groups based on what chariot teams they supported and these sports teams had political and religious implications. Jews used to buy Buicks because of Henry Ford’s notorious Jew hatred. African-Americans drank Pepsi because Pepsi decided to go for them as a market.

          Still, there is something different about identification through consumption now than there was during the 1950s and 1960s. The level of technology available during most of the 20th century meant that most markets were still mass markets. Current technology makes it much easier to reach niche or small markets and make money from them. This makes consumption more individualistic and tribal at the same time because people can find entertainment and products that appeal to them specifically and other like minded people. There is no longer any need to have something for every one.Report

          • Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

            You might be right, but I imagine it’s one of those “is the half-full glass something everyone uses” vs “is the half-empty glass only for cool people” phenomena. That seems glib, but I’m not trying to be. I’m saying I haven’t thought about it that way.

            (((Another reason to prefer Pepsi is that it tastes better.)))Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I suppose I see “defining oneself by what one does during one’s leisure time” as part of the culture of consumption.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        I think she does have a point when it comes to work places. My girlfriend works in tech. Her company is no longer a start up but their office has all of the tech company trackings. There are video game rooms, well-stocked kitchens, kombucha on tap, catered free lunch, coffee kiosks, areas that look a lot like cafes, and beer and wine every Friday. Even the regional customer support offices (aka call centers) have the cool-tech vibe (but not as fancy as the Bay Area).

        I asked my GF once if a company start-up/tech company could get away with no frills and just paying employees more. Her answer was no. To get the best talent you have to at least try and imagine you can be as big as Google and Facebook. This means top amenities and relatively top salaries.

        Of course law is different because we have everything from solos who work out of their home or share office space to reduce expenses to large multi-national firms with slick offices. There is one firm I can think of that tries to emulate a tech company vibe (interestingly they sue tech companies for privacy violations in class actions) and some that go for an industric-chic look for their offices. Most law offices still seem to go for corporate bland to a variant of old school veneer (lots of wood paneling and impressive law tomes that no one uses because everything is on computer).Report

        • Yeah. Seems to me like it shouldn’t be that controversial to say environment influences personnel which influences product. It’s a pretty common argument when it comes to race and gender.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Law is an interesting profession because it inherited a lot of tradition that was built up over the centuries. We weren’t even allowed to advertise until the early 1980s and our right to advertise is still very restricted. Bar associations really try to keep up with a certain level of professional decorum even though it might not seem that way. The entire tech vibe doesn’t really work well for the law and gets in the way of doing work.Report

  2. greginak says:

    FWIW….there is a ton of outdoor gear aimed at day hikers/family campers/non-hard core users. Oodles and oodles of it.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to greginak says:

      This is exactly was what I was thinking when I read this.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to greginak says:

      You beat me to it. This is the stuff you buy at Dick’s, or even WalMart. And for day hikes with the family it is just fine. The point of the enthusiasts’ gear is that it is as light weight as possible while capable of keeping you alive in dire weather, allowing the hiker to go further afield. The products available are amazing. My serious backpacking days were in the 1990s. My gear from back then is antediluvian by today’s standards. But this stuff is expensive. It would be ridiculous to buy it to camp fifty feet away from your car. Not that there is anything wrong with camping next to your car, but this is an entirely different experience from going off into the wilderness with only what you are able and willing to carry on your back.

      Both markets are amply supplied. If they are supplied by different companies, that is because the similarities of the two markets are largely superficial. Expertise in one does not imply competence in the other. I also suspect that the market for car camping is harder for a small company to break into. Come up with a new, lighter-weight camp stove for up on the mountain and there will be enthusiastic write-ups in the hiking magazines (or whatever the online equivalent is) and enthusiasts will buy it to add to their collection. Try to market a stove for car camping and people (and retailers) will wonder why they should replace their trusty Coleman.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to greginak says:

      I’ve gone on some day hikes in nothing more than a pair of running sneakers with my messanger bag and a water bottle.Report

      • greginak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Yeah lots of people hike in simple gear. Heck i’ve seen people doing serious long hikes in places with possibly dangerous weather in walmart gear.

        There is also a solid subset of very serious backpackers who pride themselves on gearing up as cheaply as possible from grocery stores or walmart. Sure they have some pricey gear but also stoves made out of soda cans.Report

        • Aaron David in reply to greginak says:

          They generally refer to them selves as ultra light backpackers, keeping travel weight down under 20 lbs, only drinking water that the get while hiking, and other cheap/light methods. An old friend, and former backpacking partner of mine is way into it. I tend to be cheap, as that is what I learned as a boyscout, but this is just to the level of un-fun.Report

          • greginak in reply to Aaron David says:

            To a degree yeah it is ultra light types who do that. But not just them. Lots of people who enjoy the outdoors don’t have tons of money so they get into buying cheap but good stuff.

            The real ultra light BPing does sound far to austere for me also. Light is good since i’ve done the take the kitchen sink kind of BPing which has very definite downsides.Report

            • Aaron David in reply to greginak says:

              I was always too broke (kid early in adulthood) to go kitchen sink, though my friend used to. Seems like it is much more of a reaction to all the gear fetishing that has gone on over the years. And it will slowly move back along the pendulum.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Aaron David says:

            Only drinking water you get while hiking is just common sense, if you’re going to be out terribly long. Liters and liters and more liters… that’s how much you have to carry if you carry all your water.

            And this is why anyone with any sense thinks twice before hiking a beachReport

            • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kimmi says:

              My hiking heyday was in northern Arizona. The path of wisdom included serious planning around water availability. How much you actually carried depended on the season, the itinerary, and how confident you were of there actually being water where you expected it. The only time I was actually worried was one time I got turned around and was wandering around a waterless plateau. I was able to drop down into a mostly-dry creek. It was past the wet season, but I was able to find a water pocket: green and fuzzy water, but who cares? Good times all around.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Hopefully the weather was suitably temperate…Report

      • Damon in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I did that once or twice. It’s fine if you’re paying attention. We ended up short on water, over on time and stuck on a mountain side in a thunder storm–above a full slot canyon we had to cross to get down. We almost spent the night there. The ex asked me “someone will come get us won’t they?” Not if they don’t know where we are. There were 15 people all in the same boat and no one was coming to help us. We were stupid, we figured we’d be back early and we discarded what we knew–that it was raining in the afternoons every day we were in Zion. Stupid. Ever since then, I always “over pack” for emergencies like that.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

          Better than being up in the Narrows when it’s thunderstorming… (which was how I originally heard Zion, until I reread… being in the Narrows with a thunderstorm means you’re probably dead).Report

          • Damon in reply to Kimmi says:

            Indeed. We passed on the Narrows for just such a reason, and then went up Observation Trail. Almost done and the rains came in. Should have started back sooner, but we are over confident and under prepared-shit that gets you killed.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

              Never, ever hike in cotton. That’s experience talking, there — a friend of mine (at the ripe age of 12) found a newly dead man in the woods — he had died of exposure from a freak rainstorm in late autumn.Report

              • Damon in reply to Kimmi says:

                Yep, at the time, we were soaked. The wife was starting to get hypothermia and the prospect of spending the night was grim. As a group, we’d probably had to form a huddle pile just to keep warm. Now I always carry a poncho and thermal blanket, but it’s been a while since I hiked the canyons.Report

      • I remember doing the simple hike up Mt. Washington, in NH. 85 °F and humid at the trail head at 9:00 in the morning (unusual). Started in shorts and a t-shirt, finished in long pants, a medium-weight jacket, and stocking cap. Don’t know if they still have the big sign up when you get to the boulder field. Back then, it said bluntly to turn back if the peak is in the clouds, because no one can find their way in those conditions and people die of exposure in August.Report

  3. DensityDuck says:

    The relevant fact is not that day-camping stuff exists.

    The relevant fact is that the Stuff Industry has shifted to supporting Experiential Tourism; “I could have bought a Mercedes-Benz, but instead I hiked to the top of Mount Yourfinger and experienced the transcendental joy of doing yoga while watching the sun rise from 7500 feet. And I did it wearing sustainable wool socks from Yukon Dog and a carbon-fiber-frame backpack made by Active Escape Inc.”Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to DensityDuck says:

      The problem is that when you put in (even as a quoted remark, if left to stand unchallenged) a statement as blisteringly stupid as

      “Shouldn’t companies start focusing on making gear for them?”

      people are likely to notice. Even if the rest of the piece is thoughtful and insightful, that one blisteringly stupid bit will stand out. Better to leave it out.

      That being said, my personal experience (sadly outdated, admittedly) is that the serious go-hiking-in-the-Tetons crowd is different from the crunchy yoga crowd. There is overlap, but the crunchy yoga hiker will induce a fair number of eye rolls from the other hikers.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    Loomis on LGM writes about on how the National Park Service needs to do more to attract people of color. I think that many Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans are not into heavy duty camping, fishing, or hunting mainly for economic reasons. Driving to the wilderness and camping was a popular vacation among White Americans during the first part of the 20th century because that was what most of them could afford. Most Americans of color couldn’t even afford that. Once either more luxurious vacations become affordable, most people dropped the outdoors thing unless they were really into it. Americans of color began to be able to afford and go on vacations in large numbers when the transition occurred so never got into outdoor vacations to the same extent.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Hell, you ain’t talked to anyone who’s eaten raccoon, have you?
      People of color had bullets as survival rations same as other folks did down south, where squirrels and raccoons and other things were reckoned good eatin’.

      I haven’t tried them (not kosher, obvs), but I keep an ear out, and I’ve met enough black folks that hunt and fish — they’re just often not city dwellers.Report

  5. Kimmi says:

    Virginia is an idiot.

    “What you buy is who you are” — yes, and I buy from a pretty rough crowd. But NO, let’s just go and see how shiny they look, recycling all their oil. Not the fact that they run a decent shot of getting murdered while conducting business (East Asia can get pretty rough sometimes).

    Also, I rather suspect she’s never been to a factory and talked to the workers building kayaks. I have (sat on a riverbank, watching someone pull in trout). Considerable numbers vote trump, folks. Surprise Surprise.Report

  6. It’s quite true. Everyone at the company I work for despises superhero movies, listens to classical music, and has read the collected works of both William Faulkner and P.G. Wodehouse.Report

  7. This isn’t, by the way, a new idea. Tom Wolfe has made a long career of classifying people by what they buy. It’s one of the things that makes his novels so unreadable.Report