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Confronting The Digital Elephant in the Room

Consumer research is only just beginning to emerge on how digital consumption affects basic human and consumer behaviours.

"In a few short decades digital consumption has colonized more and more of our lives from entertainment to communication to shopping to learning about the world," say Russell Belk and Rosa Llamas, editors of The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption,  "issues of what digital consumption do to our notions of self, trust, friendship, and consumer activism have been less appreciated until recently, even though they likely have a more profound on our well being."

Read more about the topics explored in The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption in this fascinating interview with the editors.

Overall, what picture do these interesting, yet varied essays, paint of digital consumption? Is there an overarching message, and if not, are there particular divergences that are important to note?

In a few short decades digital consumption has colonized more and more of our lives from entertainment to communication to shopping to learning about the world. We have had many technological revolutions before, dating back to the Stone Age. But this one is profound. As consumers of digital technologies, we have already experienced seismic shifts in how we spend our day. Industries have rapidly emerged and others have rapidly declined in the face of these shifts in consumption. This book is a compendium of answers to what this means for consumers, marketers, theory, research, and human well-being.

Which of the essays in this collection would you say was the most radical in terms of its view of digital consumption, and why?

Norah Campbell’s chapter on the posthuman consumer presents a radical view of consumers becoming digital machines and digital machines becoming human. Each of the chapters in the section on researching the digital consumer introduces radically new methods needed to understand digital consumption. And the chapters by Pridmore and Zwick and Singh and Lyon alert us to the social and ethical issues arising from digital surveillance and the radical changes in notions of privacy that such surveillance is creating.

What prompted you to bring this collection together and are there any essays that you particularly agree with or feel are very important in terms of getting a particular message about digital consumption out there?

Digital consumption was the elephant in the room that everyone could see but very few were addressing in terms of what it means for consumer theory and practice. The papers in the introductory section on “What’s Digital?” help set the stage for the volume by tracing many of the changes taking place and raising an agenda of issues. The next five sections help understand a variety of digital consumption phenomenon that together comprise a good view of the emerging field. But the final section on issues for society and culture is the most profound in taking a hard critical look at the consequences, both positive and negative, that have thus far arisen in the area of digital consumption.

Please could you say a few words about the potential dangers that arise from taking digital consumption for granted? How would these play themselves out?

Past technological revolutions like those involving electricity, the telegraph, radio, television, and the automobile have taught us that while they were inevitably accompanied by simultanous frenzies of technophilia and technophobia, it is once they became normalized that they had their greatest impacts, even though they were less appreciated at the time. The same is true of digital consumption. We have already seen how changes in the consumption of books, music, and film initially caused celebrations of free information and at the same time fierce resistance from those industries wed too strongly to older technologies. But issues of what digital consumption do to our notions of self, trust, friendship, and consumer activism have been less appreciated until recently, even though they likely have a more profound on our well being.

What do you think is the biggest assumption about digital consumption that needs to be addressed?

The initial assumption was that the so-called digital divide would separate ages, genders, and nations, empowering the young, men, and wealthy nations and disempowering the others. This gave way to an almost opposite assumption that digital technologies level the playing field, with digital phones leapfrogging landlines and anyone being able to buy, sell, and compete online. Neither of these assumptions was wholly warranted, but we need to find just which groups are benefitting from digital consumption and what the impediments are for those who are not. We also need to critically examine the assumption that everyone must have high speed internet access in order to be a fully functioning human being able to compete in the global marketplace.

How much does digital consumption reflect itself in society? Do you have any anecdotes that you would like to share which reflect this or sum it up?

We already have numerous concepts that have changed our lexicon, from “Google it” to “lol” to “in the cloud.” There’s an anecdote contained in the initial chapter about how one of us was teaching a class first thing in the morning on the first day of the term and students were straggling in late due to a major snow storm. When they were asked how many had nevertheless been on Facebook already that morning, three-fourths raised their hands. When they were asked how many had been on Facebook before they got out of bed, nearly a third raised their hands. Just don’t expect your hundreds of Facebook friends to all show up at your wedding or funeral.

How fast do you think digital consumption is evolving and to what extent can you see it taking over our lives? In other words, will there always be a place for the cashier?

There is already something of a backlash with banks and other institutions advertising that when you call you can talk to a real human being. So perhaps “taking over our lives” is a bit too extreme. With the advent of digital music, the record has made a comeback. And there is still a reasonable market for books and magazines made of paper. Together with printing out digital copies, our consumption of paper has actually gone up. But these exceptions do not negate the wave of digital consumption sweeping over us. Yes, there will always be a place for the cashier as well as the butcher, the waiter, and the air host or hostess, just as there is still a place for the blacksmith, the sweeper, and the actor or actress. But it is a safe bet that there are ever more human applications that will be replaced or aided by some form of digital encounter. Even robotic partners for life have been proposed by some utopic or dystopic visionaries.

Related Products

  1. The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption

    Edited by Russell W. Belk, Rosa Llamas

    Series: Routledge Companions in Business, Management and Accounting

    The first generation that has grown up in a digital world is now in our university classrooms. They, their teachers and their parents have been fundamentally affected by the digitization of text, images, sound, objects and signals. They interact socially, play games, shop, read, write, work,...

    Published December 18th 2012 by Routledge