The Diderot Effect: Enlightenment Philosopher Denis Diderot Explains the Psychology of Consumerism & Our Wasteful Spending

In point­ing out the clear and present dan­gers posed by out-of-con­trol con­sumerism, there is no need for Marx­ism 101 terms like “com­mod­i­ty fetishism.” Sim­ply state in plain terms that we revere cheap­ly-mass-pro­duced goods, made for the sake of end­less growth and con­sump­tion, for no par­tic­u­lar rea­son oth­er than per­pet­u­al nov­el­ty and the cre­ation of wealth for a few. Every­one nods in agree­ment, then gets back to scrolling through their social media feeds and inbox­es, con­vinc­ing them­selves, as I con­vince myself, that tar­get­ed adver­tis­ing in dig­i­tal networks—what Jaron Lanier calls “mass behav­ior-mod­i­fi­ca­tion regimes”—could not pos­si­bly have any effect on me!

While 18th-cen­tu­ry French philosophe Denis Diderot in no way pre­dict­ed (as Lanier large­ly did) the mass behav­ior-mod­i­fi­ca­tion schemes of the inter­net, he under­stood some­thing crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant about human behav­ior and the nascent com­mod­i­ty cul­ture tak­ing shape around him, a cul­ture of anx­ious dis­qui­et and games of one-upman­ship, played, if not with oth­ers, then with one­self. Renowned, among oth­er things, for co-found­ing the Ency­clopédie (the first Wikipedia!), Diderot has also acquired a rep­u­ta­tion for the insights in his essay “Regrets on Part­ing with My Old Dress­ing Gown,” which inspired the con­cept of the “Diderot Effect.”

This prin­ci­ple states that mod­ern con­sump­tion requires us to “iden­ti­fy our­selves using our pos­ses­sions,” as Esther Inglis-Arkell writes at io9. Thus, when per­suad­ed by naked lust or the entice­ments of adver­tis­ing to pur­chase some­thing new and shiny, we imme­di­ate­ly notice how out of place it looks amongst our old things. “Once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn’t fit our cur­rent sense of uni­ty, we go on a ram­page try­ing to recon­struct our­selves” by upgrad­ing things that worked per­fect­ly well, in order to main­tain a coher­ent sense of who we are in rela­tion to the first new pur­chase.

The phe­nom­e­non, “part psy­cho­log­i­cal, and part delib­er­ate manip­u­la­tion,” dri­ves heed­less shop­ping and cre­ates need­less waste. Diderot describes the effect in terms con­sis­tent with the tastes and prej­u­dices of an edu­cat­ed gen­tle­man of his time. He does so with per­spi­ca­cious self-aware­ness. The essay is worth a read for the rich hyper­bole of its rhetoric. Begin­ning with a com­par­i­son between his old bathrobe, which “mold­ed all the folds of my body” and his new one (“stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy”), Diderot builds to a near-apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nario illus­trat­ing the “rav­ages of lux­u­ry.”

The pur­chase of a new dress­ing gown spoiled his sense of him­self as “the writer, the man who works.” The new robe strikes a jar­ring, dis­so­cia­tive note. “I now have the air of a rich good for noth­ing. No one knows who I am…. All now is dis­cor­dant,” he writes, “No more coor­di­na­tion, no more uni­ty, no more beau­ty.” Rather than get rid of the new pur­chase, he feels com­pelled to become the kind of per­son who wears such a thing, by means of fur­ther pur­chas­es which he could only new­ly afford, after receiv­ing an endow­ment from Cather­ine the Great. Before this wind­fall, points out James Clear, he had “lived near­ly his entire life in pover­ty.”

Clear gives sev­er­al exam­ples of the Diderot effect that take it out of the realm of 18th cen­tu­ry aes­thet­ics and into our mod­ern big-box/A­ma­zon real­i­ty. “We are rarely look­ing to down­grade, to sim­pli­fy,” he writes, “Our nat­ur­al incli­na­tion is always to accu­mu­late.” To counter the ten­den­cy, he rec­om­mends cor­rec­tive behav­iors such as mak­ing sure new pur­chas­es fit in with our cur­rent pos­ses­sions; set­ting self-imposed lim­its on spend­ing; and reduc­ing expo­sure to “habit trig­gers.” This may require admit­ting that we are sus­cep­ti­ble to the ads that clut­ter both our phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal envi­ron­ments, and that lim­it­ing time spent on ad-dri­ven plat­forms may be an act not only of self-care, but of social and envi­ron­men­tal care as well. Algo­rithms now per­form Diderot effects for us con­stant­ly.

Is the Diderot effect uni­ver­sal­ly bad? Inglis-Arkell argues that “it’s not pure evil… there’s a dif­fer­ence between an Enlight­en­ment screed and real life.” So-called green consumerism—“replacing exist­ing waste­ful goods with more durable, clean­er, more respon­si­bly-made goods”—might be a healthy use of Diderot-like avarice. Besides, she says, “there’s noth­ing wrong with want­i­ng to com­mu­ni­cate one’s sense of self through aes­thet­ic choic­es” or crav­ing a uni­fied look for our phys­i­cal spaces. Maybe, maybe not, but we can take respon­si­bil­i­ty for how we direct our desires. In any case, Diderot’s essay is hard­ly a “screed,” but a light-heart­ed, yet can­did self exam­i­na­tion. He is not yet so far gone, he writes: “I have not been cor­rupt­ed…. But who knows what will hap­pen with time?”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

How Infor­ma­tion Over­load Robs Us of Our Cre­ativ­i­ty: What the Sci­en­tif­ic Research Shows

Every­day Eco­nom­ics: A New Course by Mar­gin­al Rev­o­lu­tion Uni­ver­si­ty Where Stu­dents Cre­ate the Syl­labus

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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