Experencies vs. Things

I think it’s time to talk about the experience vs. things dichotomy.

If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here’s the cliff notes:

Forgot guns vs butter from the econ classroom, this is about vacations versus iPads.  It’s about consumer goods from big box USA versus a rum fueled night at the beach in Cuba, or a stroll around the Eiffel Tower.

First, I gotta say I love “experiences”, but this whole dichotomy needs a little reworking on how we think about it.  First, I would caution readers against “big experience™”, i.e., the manufactured idea of an ideal vacation.  I absolutely love the idea of experiences and adventures, but I’m cautious around the marketing of experiences.  Why are the ‘great’ vacations, one where you have to step onto a plane? I’m not saying traveling the world isn’t great, sure it is.  But just keep in mind there is a big overlap between consumerism and durable consumer goods and the experience business (i.e., tourism).  How many commercials show warm, crisp the sand is? Late nights with bonfires, ladies in bikinis, rowdy parties all night long!

This isn’t a bash on vacations,  there are just too many variables, but as I already said be careful of the manufactured idea of a vacation.  A nice road trip to Northern Ontario could be just as nice as a dip in the Gulf of Mexico.

Vacations have a bit of a “it is better in the mind than in real life”. A study from the Netherlands showed that the most happiest aspect of a vacation was the planning stage.  Cool, the idea of the vacation is the best part of a vacation.

Now to get at the nuts and bolts about the experience vs things dichotomy before us, I want to discuss an infographic I saw   on Reddit, on the /r/anticonsumption subreddit a little while ago.  The OP may have been well-intentioned, but the content was torn asunder by the anti-consumption community (including yours truly).

experiences vs things infographic

Infographic: Experiences vs things

But here’s the thing, ‘experiences’ should not be regarded as superior a priori.  Also, there is no resolution to the question of what is an experience or what is a thing?  Socrates would say something like, “μιλάτε εμπειριών , σίγουρα πρέπει να ξέρετε τι είναι μια εμπειρία” which translates to “you talk of experiences, surely you must know what an experience is” (or so says Google translate).

A tablet is a thing, but is a gateway to experience.  Watching a Youtube video is an experience, playing fappy birds is an experience, maybe not a good one, but an experience nonetheless.  Buying some MDMA is a thing, but consuming it is an experience. Was that illegal purchase considered a thing, or an experience? (dealing with some of those black market cats, probably column A and column B!) A couch is a thing, but sitting on it is an experience, perhaps a banal experience (sitting on a couch is 9/10 betters than sitting on the floor, trust me).

We as humans experience everything, so it gets sort of tricky sorting out things.   Mostly what most people mean in this discourse is, experiences equate to things like, concerts, a class in pottery, a trip to the Carribean.  Things are durable consumer goods: cell phones, furniture, cars.

Now back to the infographic.

I don’t think things and experiences are as mutually exclusive as this chart suggests, bur rather this false dichotomy is being drummed up by travel-friendly interests to promote traveling as superior than buying consumer goods. I think a big flaw in this thinking is that thinking that the “tourist experience” – waking up early, catching a flight at 5:45 in the morning, flying to the Caribbean, sitting at a resort, eating a buffet, vacation on rails is supposed to be the experience. This site also confuses the actual act of buying and the ownership of a product. These categories are not mutually exclusive. I have fond memories of playing Battlefront 2 on my bed with my best friend until the sun rose back in the high school days, I don’t remember buying the game, but I remember the experience from that game. So if the debate is the actual act of buying things vs going to foreign places, well the flying away one sounds better. But it is more complicated than that.

Here is my critique of some of the points on this infographic.  I want to put a disclaimer that I’m not defending consumer goods, but rather trying to prevent a dogmatic approach that favors ‘experiences’ or in this case tourism.

Even a bad experience becomes a good story

What about the time I bought a shitty department store mountain bike at Canadian Tire?   That story made a good blog article (at least an okay article?). So even a bad purchase could be a good story?

“Buying material goods is inherently selfish”

Could be true, but buying an inclusive resort package in Mexico is somehow more utilitarian than buying consumer goods?

We can share them

And you can’t share your new iPad, the new iPad that ripped off the Microsoft Surface?

“Things will never show the world in different perspectives

Commmeeee on.  Was this thing drummed up by group think?  Ever hear of the internet? What about books?  I read the book Nothing to Envy, a book about North Korea, that’s some perspective.   Is this infographic suggesting that the only way you can experience different perspectives is by breaking the Visa out of jail, grasping the boarding pass, getting a courtesy rectal exam  from the TSA, sitting middle row between 4 crying babies on a plane that is 4 hours late from taking off.  Then after that, staying in a resort that is fenced off from the local populace, where you eat the same cuisine as in North America (yum, ribs and steak!) and everyone speaks English. Obviously being on the ground is unique, but it’s not the only way to learn about other places.

“Stuff stays the same”  and “Items change value”

Technically untrue, a bottle of wine gets better with age, software gets better with each new revision (not always true, ahem, uTorrent). Touristmaker.com acknowledges this implicitly, by saying items change value. Things may not change as much (besides rusting and degrading), but how we relate to them and our relationship to them changes.  A car used to be about freedom, but ownership, insurance, and repairs makes the car represent something entirely different than it did when I was young.   Beenie Babies were a dime a dozen, but in 2040 they will be worth millions, right guys?  How our relationship with things change, helps determine value, which in turn means that things change.

“Things do not change us”

Imagine if you lived in the forest, god that would suck(maybe). You’d have to dig a latrine, you would have to kill squirrels or whatever with your bare hands.  Then imagine you found a stick and sharpened it, killing squirrels becomes way easier. Now you have more time to tell spooky stories because you have so much free time because you don’t have to strangle the cute little squirrel, one stab and it’s done.   Are you going to tell me, Touristmaker.com, that a sharpened stick didn’t make my life better?  Are you going to say it didn’t change me?

“Shopping do not teach you anything [sic]”

Perhaps the actual action of shopping isn’t of much of a learning experience (but it can be!), but stuff can teach you stuff. The book I bought on American politics from the used bookstore has taught me a lot about, well, American politics.

Experience and travel change you for the better

Sure, maybe, sometimes.  Thought experiment time!  Say I go to North Korea, I accidently slander glorious leader, I get tossed in some gulag and contract some Dickensian disease. Now I have some muscle atrophy and can’t type up stories on my wonderful website anymore, did that experience change me for the better?  What about if I decide to drive down to Bronson Missouri, and some snot nosed trooper pulls me over for one tail-light being smaller than the other.  I get a ticket for $67 dollars, plus a $5 administration fee, gee thanks Mississouri.  Is that a travel experience for the better?  Depends on how much radical freedom you embrace.

And change for the better?  What is better? What if that negative encounter with that state trooper turns me into some sort of Sovereign Citizen, where I try to get out of traffic tickets by claiming I wasn’t driving, but merely traveling. Also humiliating judges by pointing out that I am being tried in an Admiralty court (which is unconstitutional for some reason), checkmate gobament.

Experiences help you express gratitude

???? Nope, I don’t even know what that means.

Experiences are inherently more social

Compared to what, are we talking about the act of buying something? Because, if you ever been to a Dollarama you know you are going to be waiting in line for awhile, with other people.  If you’re talking about things, we can all watch the TV together, social, no? (But does that count as an experience?)

Experiences are unforgettable and joyful memories [sic]

Ugh, maybe that’s what we want to think about the cliche commercialized vacation.  Everyone’s probably been to some forgettable place and have had less-than-stellar vacations.

“Even an expensive item will soon be forgotten”

What if you financed it and you get bills for it the next 8 years?  Don’t think you’ll forget it anytime soon.  What about little Jimmy’s braces? Don’t think he’ll forget the crippling insecurities anytime soon.

“Things are not forever”

I hate to break this to you Touristmaker.com but NOTHING is forever (except plastic bags sitting at your landfill). Your trip to Niagra Falls will one day cease to exist, your biological memory will falter and fail, amnesia, and death take care of that.  Security footage of little Jimmy stuffing chocolates down his shorts from the “chocolate factory” will either be erased, looped over, or the physical media will degrade.

Experiences teach you life lessons

Yeah little Jimmy, don’t steal from the fine folks at Hersheys!

“We get bored of stuff easily

Sure, probably. When’s that next Call of Duty coming out, again?

“Buying things can isolate you”

So can flying off to a country in the global south,  posting obnoxious pictures on Facebook, spend months afterward relating every single experience to your time in the local market.  That can be isolating.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *