Thorstein Veblen invented the term "vicarious consumption" some hundred years ago. Look, he said, the consumer choices exhibited by one person sometimes work to the credit of another. When we see a butler in a tuxedo, a benefit accrues not to the butler but his "master." The butler is consuming vicariously for his boss.
Great. Splendid. Veblen was ahead of his time. One day we who loiter at the intersection of anthropology and economics will get serious about the issue here: how the value called money can be turned into the value called status by the intermediary called clothing, display and ritual. How do capitals of one kind become capital of another, performing certain kinds of social work in the process? What conversion processes are at work?
Some day. But for the moment, I want to appropriate Veblen’s term for another purpose. In this case, vicarious consumption is something I purchase not to expand my display of wealth, but my breadth of experience. Now, my agent is not a status advertisement, but as an opportunity for experience.
I have a new demand as a consumer. I want to hire people to live my life for me. I want to hire lots of them. I want to send them out into the world. I want them to report back. I want to be able to live my life, and several others to boot.
Two things are driving this.
The world got smaller. I now know about aspects of the world that were simply invisible to my great grandfather. I know for instance a little about the politics and the culture of South Africa. I think to myself, "wow, that must be interesting." Chances are my great grandfather didn’t know anything about South Africa and if he did, it came to him through the lens of a sensationalistic journalism that encouraged a sense of difference, not one of sameness.
I got bigger. Well, not me, personally. All of us. All of us are the beneficiaries of an education and a culture that does not tremble at the appearance of cultural difference. No, we say, ok, so how is it different? Differences used to scare the pants off us. It used to provoke the worst kinds of xenophobia (including racism and genocide). Now, it’s regarded as a sort of stimulant. (Food is a good example. Our great grandparents were inclined to say (adjusting for ethnicity), "I’m not ever giving up my beans and chips. Not me." Their descendants now say stuff like, "I thought the Pad Thai was a little bit rubbery. Next time, let’s try that new Tibetan place?)
A new product category
I am suffering deficit I never had before. I don’t have enough lives to capture the world out there. If I’m lucky, I have what’s left of a 75 year incumbency, and the substantial liberties that come with being a creature of privilege in 21st century North America.
But it’s not enough! I can see many things in the world that I would love to experience. It would be really, really interesting to live in many parts of the former Soviet union. Any part of China would now be deliriously interesting as would any part of India. I would like to know what the world looks like to David Brooks or Mitch Hurwitz or George Stroumboulopoulos. (Their experience is of course not accessible, but I could spend enough time in Washington, Hollywood and Toronto to get a clue.)
A concession: I don’t actually want to raw, unmediated access to the new domains that beckon. As a member of my generation and this time and place, I am thoroughly spoiled and expect to be thoroughly cosetted. This means I do not actually hunger for a glimpse into the life of someone who is illiterate, abused, and tuburcular. Misery, I can imagine…and the misery I cannot imagine, I am deeply, deeply grateful for. (We need to reverse the polarity of that famous line about each family being unhappy in its own way. I think misery is probably the true universal. It’s in happiness (or at least engagement) that makes things unpredictable.)
But I do want things that are very much less mediated than they used to be. And this means that the old suppliers in the marketplace (journalistic treatment, documentary filmmaking, Disney, Club Med, fictional recreation on page and screen) are not enough. I need information that is more voluminous, less managed, and more personal than anything they can supply.
I figure there are going to be lots of new suppliers for the "alternative lives" product category. One of the natural options here is a kind of "experience exchange" that allows me to contract with, say, a Southern politician and work out some way of giving the two of us access to one another’s lives. My friend Craig Swanson and I have been talking about how tourism might be reinvented along these lines. I recently met a Baptist minister on the train, and we have been corresponding life events back and forth by email. (I am able to report this much: his life is amazingly interesting.)
But let me stick with the notion of the vicarious consumer for the moment. I can imagine a college student headed off to the far east with three clients in mind. William, let’s call him, will be going for his own purposes, to seek adventure, to skirt disaster, to make himself more worldly. But he will also have consulted with his three clients, and he goes off "to the field" with a sense of what would most surely engage their curiosity. This is a pretty good way of making up for the parties’ respective deficits. I don’t know enough about Asia. William, like every college student, will never have enough money.
The technologies are there: blogging by word and video, cell phones. Personally, I’m happy if William writes a public blog. That should be one of the values he can extract from the opportunity. I just hope that I can induce him to engage with the world with a curiosity and an intelligence that resembles my own. I have to hope, and this is interesting to ponder, that the kinds of things William does and notices to appeal to his clients will prove to be the kind of thing that will broaden and or deepen the potential appeal of his website to others.
Somebody now needs to build the exchange, a kind of Craig’s list that allows experience seekers to find vicarious consumers plus some way of mediating between buyers and sellers. All we is need exchange experience, some managerial capability, some test cases, a little research, not very deep pockets, a website, and Bob’s your uncle, as the English say.
I wonder if this isn’t an industry waiting to happen. You, too? For God sake, call me.