Today’s modern consumer culture thrives on material value — a world where we are buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people who don’t matter. The value of our personhood is dependent upon the things we own rather than the qualities that should define our core identities, moral beliefs and personal importance.
This consumer culture has led to the development of a fashion trend built on minimalist design. We see a rise in motifs in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect, a beautiful counteraction to the threat of overwhelming materialism. This movement, like most fashion, reflects a change in cultural value, acting as a reliable mirror of societal change. The turnover to a minimalist lifestyle is a response to a consumer culture where people are desensitized to money, used to buying online and swiping with credit — often not feeling the weight of physical bills in the context of hours of labor and sacrifices made.
Modern marketing techniques, especially those employed online, are designed to take advantage of the fact that as financial transactions become more abstract, the consumer is rendered less likely to realize its effect. The internet makes it easy to fall victim to third party website tracking, misleading advertisements and credit card debt — all of which remind the consumer to keep spending as much and as often as possible. Outside the web, however, the desensitization issue becomes even more prevalent.
The U.S. loan system is one very familiar to college and graduate students, and a perfect example that shows that as the numbers get bigger, the desensitization gets more extreme. Statistically speaking, a student assuming a 10-year loan at 7-percent interest for $40,000 will owe, after loan payments and interest, almost $56,000. You’d think that such a crippling number would be obviously impactful on a student just out of high school, yet the financial aid system is strategically designed to minimize the student’s understanding of the magnitude of the liability that they’re taking on. Realistically, once a loan is arranged and paperwork is signed, that is the only tangential interaction the student will have with the finances. Money is transferred to schools electronically, where a digitized account applies the credit to the student’s expenses. In most cases, the whole borrowing process becomes so nonphysical that the student is desensitized until they graduate and face the payments owed.
In cases of financial, societal or structural crisis, Americans are told to buy, buy, buy. Incentivizing spending like this serves to boost market profit and supposedly social condition. And in pure American fashion, consumer psychology conditions us to listen — we buy, buy, buy our way out of one recession and into the next. This cyclic relationship builds and sustains a fluctuating economy exploiting resources, people, labor and ethics in exchange for overproduction, subversive marketing efforts and propaganda-like activity from a government puppet-strung by private corporations. By constantly finding new ways to trap its constituents into a web of debt, short-lived attachment to material and almost fanatic obsession with spending, this consumer culture dictates a shift in societal values, encourages an abstraction for market interactions and actively plays a role in desensitizing us all to money’s value.
A minimalist lifestyle isn’t just reflected in Urban Outfitters’s black-and-white motifs with natural wood tones, to which I, of course, subscribe. Instead, living like a minimalist means recognizing that society needs to be wary of its dangerously dependent role in our market economy. To some, minimalism is the ability to enter a room clean and void of clutter, an art of letting go. To us students, it should be a metaphor for life — a relearning of value.
Hannah Gulko is senior majoring in human development.