Our identity develops through many different sources. You are the place where you are born, the things you read, what you post on your Facebook page, what you do when no one is looking. The importance of each of those sources changes and evolves over the centuries. Right now, we are mostly what we consume and what we seem to be. But our purchasing power is still limited by physical boundaries (like environmental resistance) as well as financial boundaries (which require other forms of consumption and expression of identity).
Today, being at a specific place doesn’t necessarily mean being there. Before the Internet took over our bags, pockets, and wrists, our attention used to focus on where we were physically. Now it’s a common scene to see friends sitting in a bar checking their text messages, at concerts where thousands of screens are pointing to the stage and posting pictures on Facebook, and restaurants where the food is first appreciated through lenses connected to Instagram.
That dichotomy between being physically and mentally present corrupts the fluidity of identity development. Belonging to a place and a nation used to mean so much more in the past. “Where I come from” was like a primal level of identification, but now globalization and its technologies are quickly changing that innermost core. If you live in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, who do you think can relate more to you in terms of cultural identity: people who are in the same profession as you or live in big cities like New York, or people who live in small towns in your own country?
And as those and other representations are changing so rapidly, people start to decenter not only from the world, but also from themselves, which means their identities no longer orbit around a coherent “self.” There are several names to describe this new era of identity crisis — postmodernity, hypermodernity,liquid modernity —, illustrating that change in individual behavior, which used to be solid and unchangeable, and now it’s changing and adapting with multiple identities.
Where we are: identity through consumption
While in the past we were almost predestined to the cultural identities of the place we lived, of our parents’ religion, and the gender we were assigned at birth, now it is clear that our conception of identity is much more plastic and frugal. We are what we are right now.
Consuming is now part of the construction of the self. When we consume, we take along the values attached to that product. That is clear in fashion: being Chanel is classic, being YSL is bold. But that construction does not necessary imply buying luxury products or services, which invest much more in displaying identity than diffusing it. So consuming a film we downloaded via Torrent or a fake designer purse may fulfill symbolic needs as much as buying the original versions of them.
We are seen through stereotypes that are created based on what we like. When we create identities based on what we consume, we create a huge spectrum of selfs, often paradoxical, which can be very clear to the individual, but not to society. So considering consumerism may have value for building identities, an individual’s mindset goes from “can I?” or “do I need it?” to “do I want it?” or “am I?”
“People need to satisfy not only their physical needs, but also their symbolic needs.” — Pierre Bourdieu
Where we are going: sharing economy
The liquidness produced by postmodernity has taken the relationship between companies and consumers to another level. More than ever, consuming is attached to identity. However, the ability of expressing oneself through consumption is physically limited by natural resources and industrial production, as well as economically limited, since not everyone can buy the things that can symbolically satisfy them.
The documentary film The True Cost shows how the fast fashion movement is setting us free to express ourselves through fashion in a more financially accessible way, while at the same time causing enormous problems as production is being outsourced to countries with lenient labor laws.
Sharing economy, collaborative economy. If you’ve ever stayed at a place through Airbnb instead of a hotel, used Tem Açúcar in your neighborhood, or spent a day at a coworking site, you already are part of this economy that is based on access, not the purchase of a product or service.
Pay-as-you-go services, in which we pay a certain amount of money to use something for a limited time, such as Uber or Netflix, are not part of sharing economy, because they involve negotiating with one company, and there is no one collaborating or sharing on the other end. But we can’t ignore their merits. Both support an economy that has potential to reduce damages caused to the environment, cut costs of products and services, and consequently lower the heavy weight we feel – in our pockets and on our conscience – when we use something.
Of course, not all consequences are good in certain situations. We are a consumer society, and most jobs are related to production growth and sales increase. But the fact is, no matter how much the market may try to stop those kinds of initiatives, they are an unquenchable force, and a much more competitive one at that.
From luddites to cab drivers protesting against Uber, the story is repeating itself. Historically, workers have always tried to stop dramatic changes in their industry to protect their jobs, but those efforts rarely pay off in the long term.
We develop our identity through what we consume, taking along the values attached to those things. Once we start to access more things, and they are more and more disposable, we create an exponentially more fluid identity, more flexible and more compatible with ourselves. We express ourselves better the more access we have. This is one of the great disruptions brought by sharing economy.
Our identity was once believed to be predestined by God, then by humankind – and by our origin, our color, our belief system. Now it is reflected in what we have and what we seem to be. With the sharing economy, we wonder how much more flexible that identity will become. After all, we will be able to encompass so many more “things” to symbolize us within our own universe. We are not what we own, but what we access.