The further I delve into studying things like creativity, digital overload, anxiety, depression, and the effect that our insane world has on our minds and bodies, one thing stands out to me. Our world treats every one of us as a consumer first and foremost. It isn’t, “What good do you bring to the world?” but, “What are you buying today, and how can it be most effectively sold/marketed to you?” The more I internalize this, the more I realize that I am tired of being treated like a consumer.
Unfortunately, there are very few places I can go where I don’t feel like I’m only valued because of what’s in my wallet. My home isn’t safe… Turn on the TV and the blizzard of ads makes me cringe. The internet is a disaster, ad-wise, with pop ups, sponsored posts, and shilling absolutely rampant. (And that’s with an ad blocker running.)
Go out into the world and you’ll find that nearly every place is trying to buy and sell you. Restaurants, movie theaters (my god, the number of ads that run before the movies these days!), amusement parks and, of course, shops, all slap you silly with ads. The open road’s no better thanks to billboards and radio ads. Even schools treat students as commodities, hitting them with opportunities to buy everything from yearbooks, to class rings, to test prep. (Some schools even advertise other products on the walls in exchange for funding.) Even churches are no longer immune. If they’re not overtly asking for money, many sell other products. The money may go to a worthwhile cause, but do you really go to church to see an ad for a concert that’s coming to town, or a reminder to stop in at the church-sponsored coffee and book shop?
There are few places to go and just be, without feeling that someone only wants you there so they can buy and sell you. Parks. (The municipal kind, not the Disney kind.) Museums. (Some of them. Some are intent on selling “memberships” and getting you into the gift shops.) Open spaces like forests or mountain trails. And libraries.
The library is one of the last remaining places where I can go and know that my mere presence is enough. The library is not after my wallet, and it doesn’t want to analyze me for data mining purposes. The fact that I am there is enough. It demands nothing from me other than my presence.
In fact, I feel valued there. The act of checking out a book (a free service) boosts the circulation figures, meaning that my branch may get more funding next year. Yet no one makes a huge production about this. If I opt to leave without checking out a single book, no one tries to make me feel bad about that. And if I only want one book, there’s no attempt to up-sell me and make me take six, instead. No one chases me to the door waving fliers and coupons in my face, urging me to consider just one more thing. There are no doo-dads at the checkout desk, placed there in an attempt to get me to part with just a bit more money.
That stands in contrast to the rest of the world which seems intent on treating all of us as walking, talking commodities. We exist only to the point that we can be milked for money. If we opt to step off the consumer treadmill, we cease to be relevant to the world at large. This isn’t absolutely true, of course. You can stop shopping and still be valuable to your family. Well, unless their love for you is predicated on the stuff you buy for them. In that case, boy, have you got problems.
But generally speaking, if you opt to buy less, turn off your TV and avoid ads, stop liking and talking about brands on your social feeds, or retire and stop producing promotable products, most places make you feel “less than.” At the very least, opting out of the consumer race leaves you highly annoyed when you step out in public because everything is directed at getting you back into the race.
Unless you’re at the library. It’s a gentle place. Sure, they may promote upcoming events, but the ultimate success or failure of the library isn’t reliant on your attendance. It’s simply a service they provide. There are no shareholders to appease, no investors’ wallets to fatten. The library is one place you can go where the attitude is, “Come in. Sit awhile. Look around. No pressure. Just hang out and read. Maybe take a book home if you feel like it.”
Even bookstores aren’t this relaxed. In a bookstore, there’s subtle pressure to buy something. It may come in the form of discounts, promotions, or the ubiquitous coffee/pastry shop. (“Hey, if you won’t buy a book, at least have a nosh while you look around!”) Cashiers offer extras. “Hey, did you see our bookmarks?” The pressure may be more subtle in a bookstore than, say, in a department store, but it’s still there.
But the library only wants you to come inside. It demands nothing in return. And it gives so much more. Books for sure, but also classes, homework help, research assistance, and community programs. All just for walking in the door. Sure, I’m a devoted reader, but I think I spend more time in the library these days simply because it’s a place that wants me, not my wallet.
(Photo courtesy of Michael D Beckwith)