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We, the Spectator-Consumers

When we might buy something, we are in as exalted a state as most of us will ever attain.

As consumers, we’re the most important force in the economic system on which virtually everything else in contemporary society is built.  We’re the subject of endless investigation and analysis and study.  Our every mood and whim is attended to with the kind of earnest solicitousness that was once reserved for royalty.

We hold a comparably significant position as consumers of media, which appears to be rapidly becoming the primary product of the American economy.

Our roles of spectator and consumer often overlap—for example, when we’re the audience for advertising along with our television programming.

We're aware of our roles as spectators and consumers without really thinking about them.  This awareness affects, among other things, how we present ourselves to the world.  The effects are not always positive.

For example, it wasn’t very long ago that everybody took great care to wear clothing that was appropriate to the environment they were in.  People customarily put on coats and ties to ride in airplanes, and would have felt horribly out place wearing a sweatshirt in any of the better shopping districts.

Today, at the same time that stores have become ever more opulent, lavish with marble and polished exotic hardwoods and other sumptuous accoutrements, shoppers come dressed in ways that more traditionally would have been considered barely adequate for washing their cars.

What accounts for this contemporary lack of self-consciousness?

Do doubt part of it originates in retailing's growingskill at capturing people's attention. Astute merchandisers are now able to get mall traffic so engrossed in their wares that shoppers go into a kind of consumer goods reverie, in which they lose all thought of the people around them, darting impulsively or stpping abruptly in a manner more typically found in small children than in mentally competent adults.  For anyone who's had to cope witrh these people while simply trying to walk purposefully at a normal pace from Point A to Point B, a sense that they've become effectively invisible to the people around them may be well grounded.

There are also subtler but more profound reasons for feeling like we're not really seen anymore.  Although we're catered to extravagantly as consumers and spectators, real dignity tends to come more from being producers and participants.  But in these areas, the contemporary world is more likely to rebuff us than to stroke us.  As a result, we seem to sense that we're mere spectators even in the mall.

Things today simply happen on a scale that dwarfs us.