In today’s world, companies are constantly trying to persuade us to buy something. Did you just get an email from Amazon about this week’s hot deals? Is an Old Navy commercial playing on your television? How about the ad for Nike you have to watch before your YouTube video loads?
According to sociologist and Georgetown University professor emeritus Theodor W. Adorno, this mass commodification is all a part of the culture industry. Simply put, this term refers to society’s obsession with consumerism which is ultimately fueled by companies dictating what we ought to buy and how we should think.
For example, every year a new phone model comes out. Leading up to the big event, tech companies publish articles speculating what the latest phone will feature, enthusiasts flock to the day-of play-by-play live feeds, and about a week later, you can “pre-order” the latest-and-greatest phone or stand in line for hours at your local phone retailer.
Now, technological advances are great — yay future advances in medicine and environmental studies! — but is our survival dependent on getting the newest smartphone with the thinnest frame and most high-def camera?
Sure — phone upgrades are the easiest example. But this is not an isolated incident of today’s unbridled materialism. Instead, you can find hints of the culture industry Adorno warns us about almost anywhere you look.
Dulling our senses
While the effects of this problem can lead to a cycle of consumption and waste, we are also personally damaged.
In the culture industry, businesses decide what we consume, how we consume it, and when we consume it. Even worse, the culture industry does not permit us the ability to dig deeper and discover the true meaning of things, because the goods and services it provides are all one dimensional. In other words, everything we receive is formulaic, meaning it adds no surprises or value to our lives.
Instead, the culture industry simply dulls our senses, turning us into “passive receivers” of whatever businesses provide.
Does this sound familiar?
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis explains our consumerist society is the result of “a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”
Although the pope does not specifically mention the culture industry, he picks up on Adorno’s fears surrounding our world’s materialistic infrastructure. Namely, if we continue to obey the culture industry, we will only desire to accumulate more material objects rather than helping others or developing our own moral character.
What an incredibly scary thought.
So, there has to be a solution, right?
Well, yes and no.
In order to curb the power of the culture industry, our society needs to collectively come together and look past material wealth. Clearly, though, this feat is not easy to accomplish.
However, there are a few things we can do on our own to help gradually inspire others to break free from the culture industry’s grasp:
- Start saying “no” to commercialism. I’ll admit it: shopping is fun. But do you really need that new phone just because it’s the latest and (supposedly) greatest? Perhaps not. So, instead of constantly spending, try saving your money and making it work for you.
- Get uncomfortable. Part of the problem of the culture industry is standardization. Basically, this characteristic means today’s consumerism blocks off the weird and edgy stuff which can help us contemplate the world and approach its embedded truth. In its place, the culture industry simply gives us comfortable, mundane goods. Don’t be afraid to break from trends and focus on what will bring you true joy.
Equipped with knowledge about the culture industry, you can become a leader within your family, group of friends, workplace, or even your local community. The culture industry should not control your life, so don’t let it — show others it is okay to go against the grain.