The “App” as the ultimate symbol of consumerist culture

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We now live in a world of “apps” – those small but intelligent software programs that look good and reside inside our smart phones. The ultimate aim of the ‘app’ is to ensure that whatever we want is just two clicks away to access.

In a random viewing of ads on television yesterday, I saw ads for Practo – an app based doctor identifying and booking service, WOO – a match making service, Truly-Madly – a dating service. These are but the new kids on the block with apps now available to be downloaded to one’s mobile for practically every kind of problem, need or desire. In the age of the ‘app’, the pursuit of pleasure as well as the perfect life, are just two clicks away. Hungry- just click onto Food Panda and order in. Need to go somewhere – just click on to Ola or Uber and call for a taxi. Backache – just click on to Practo and book a doctor’s appointment. Want a date, click on to Truly-Madly and find yourself a girlfriend or at least someone to flirt with. Want a new bag, clothes, shoes or just about anything for the home – click on the Amazon or Flipkart app and order. Want to go on holiday – click on the Yatra app and get going. Bored, want a book – click on the Amazon or Flipkart app and order a book or a CD or a game. Or even better, download games and play. Record your voice, sing a song, lip sync, play-act, for anything and everything, there is an app around to assist you and help make it happen.
So what all does the “app” stand for and symbolize?

“Instant-ness” of course, in a way that was unimaginable even a decade ago. Whatever you want, there is an app in your phone and within 2 clicks you can be experiencing it in less than 5 seconds.

Mobile“Always-on gratification”- a pleasure-filled paradise that never fails to deliver. Feel like watching a movie, download and watch or book a ticket in an instant. Want to travel somewhere, book a hotel, hail a cab, play a game, listen to music, call for food, find yourself a romantic partner…whatever be the desire, the app delivers, with minimal frustration and maximum gratification.

“Empowerment unlimited” – all the buying power concentrated in the consumers’ hands. Everything that a consumer wishes to shop for, order online, make happen, all the power of choice is bundled into various apps. A smart phone as a home of apps is empowerment unlimited.

“Intelligent assistance” – the app is clever and enables many types of processing at high speeds that the human brain would falter in…thereby ensuring that an ‘app’ may not be replaceable by a human assistant.

Thus the “app” is an embodiment of several ideas that are central to consumerism or a culture that is anchored on consumption as the main goal of life. Consumption anchored culture valorizes and celebrates a set of values and beliefs just as other types of cultures valorize and celebrate other types of values and beliefs.

We can draw a parallel with the fundamental construct of our society developed by Vedic Brahmanism to illustrate how culture defines norms. Vedic Brahmanism as a culture valorized knowledge of the Vedas (revealed truths/the ultimate Dharma), gave primacy to rituals designed to please and propitiate divine power to intercede on behalf of struggling man, envisioned a certain type of hierarchical clan network as the ideal societal structure, imagined harmony and prosperity as the outcome of extended clans living in peace and not feuding or warring (vasudaiva kutumbakam), defined the roles and duties for various clan/family members and set the rules of inclusion and exclusion as well as relative status of various members of society. This culture aimed to give meaning to human life in socio-religious or socio-spiritual terms.

Consumption-based or consumerist culture aims to give meaning to life via consumption. The answers to the fundamental and the frivolous, the sacred and the profane are all to be found via shopping and consuming. Consumerist culture valorizes hedonism – pleasure and sensorial gratification as the ultimate form of human happiness. Want to be happy? Drink Coca-Cola and share Coca-Cola with friends. Want titillation? Just watch the news coverage of celebrity scandals. It celebrates choice as empowerment – endless varieties of products and services for you to choose from, to match your every thought, desire and wish – however fleeting or passing it may be. The consumer is King or Queen, one who by pressing the button of a remote or bypassing a shelf in the supermarket becomes all-powerful.

Mobile-appsIt defines social and societal progress in material terms – the bigger house, the newer car, the latest gadget. Attractiveness is paramount as the less attractive is less pleasurable and simply will not be chosen. The rituals are rituals attached to consumption moments and the societal icons and role models are the uber-consumerists – celebrities of various types and their favorite pastimes and indulgences.

Consumerist culture (supported by Chinese factories) is the USA’s biggest export to the world since the cold war. Historically, the most powerful and wealthy civilization of the time exported its culture to other peoples and places that sought to emulate it. The Persian courts exported their culture to India via the Mughal kings who sought inspiration from Persia. The Chinese courts exported their culture to South-East Asia and so on. The pattern continues, the emulation code prevails.

The ‘app’ is the most powerful symbol of consumerist culture invented yet. That little piece of software, embedded within an attractively designed GUI is the ultimate embodiment of consumption-led culture. Instant and endless gratification, choice, empowerment, access, easy solutions like never before; all in two clicks. Whether sitting in an armchair, walking about or waiting somewhere or even working; the “app” beckons and tempts the modern Indian, the ‘youthful’ Indian to enter the gates of consumerist paradise, to experience the freedom to choose and to enjoy the good life.

Vedic Brahmanism which took ‘samsara’ or the compulsion for man or woman to fulfill their duties within a societal structure as the fundamental requirement for a meaningful human life, imagined freedom as liberation from samsara. This freedom was attainable during Vanaprastha or through becoming a yogi or a mystic. It thus posited duty to family and society vs. individual freedom as one of the fundamental choices of human life. And the cultural codes sought to resolve that opposition in specific ways.

Consumerist culture on the other hand beguiles and tempts with its promise of endless freedom of choice but hides the potential addictions and compulsions to consume. The ‘app’ its most potent symbol reflects that dichotomy, between visible freedom and the hidden potential for addictions that can keep youthful Indians enslaved, within the confines of an “appy” device.

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