As I was preparing a lecture for our second year students on the masters program in fashion studies on the topic of critical approaches to consumption earlier this week, it struck me how the literature we use to teach consumer culture theory is lacking accounts of consumer culture in the digital era.

Even though a fundamental perspective when it comes to understanding consumer culture in the contemporary, it appears that academic theory has difficulties with keeping up with the fast and vast digital and technological changes that have taken place during the last few years. One beauty of academia, as I find it, is the long and deep production of knowledge. However, the development of digitalization has for a long time followed a pattern of exponential growth, leading up to the point in time in which we are now when things are changing at an unprecedented pace (Brynjolfsson & McAffe 2014). This makes a lot of research out of date by the time it is published, and even more so by the time it finds its way into the curriculum. (To a large extent, this is due to center-periphery relations. Research universities specialized in the development of new technologies in the center, are way ahead of universities in the periphery with less resources and other areas of focus).

The theories encountered in literature dealing with for example consumer culture theory as I am referring to above are typically constructed around the industrial revolution and post-industrial times. The questions we are used to ask about the world need to be posed in relation to the digital era as well.

What are the characteristics of the digital era? What has changed? What does it mean that some argue that we are now in a “gap period”, e.g. technological change moves faster than the structures of society? Can we escape digitalization? What are the consequences of digitalization for us as individuals and as collectives? In what ways does digitalization affect democracy and class structures? What implications do social media and new technologies of self have on identity creation? Are individuals born into the digital era fundamentally different from individuals born into the periods of industrial revolutions? Is it relevant to talk about life divided into online and IRL behaviors? How can we understand the creation of value regarding social media from a user perspective?

If we are to understand anything happening in the now, we need to start working with clearer definitions of the digital era, and adopt the ever growing vocabulary under construction to define and describe this revolution in our teachings.

References: Brynjolfsson Erik & Andrew McAfee. The second machine age: work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies (New York : W. W. Norton & Company, cop. 2014).

Image: Flickr cc by Chris Devers