The Commodification of Experiences

If you spend any time reading through blogs, books, or Instagram posts about minimalism, you'll almost certainly see some quote about how “experiences are better than things”. Typically this is accompanied by something like “experiences create lasting memories and things just wear out and break” or “it's better to spend money on travel and experiences than on more clutter”. And I think this is true, for the most part. But during our last few trips, I've seen a disturbing trend with people seeking these experiences. They've reduced them to nothing more than a couple of social media pictures and another item checked off the list. They've commodified them.

I don't pretend to be some great outdoorsman or great adventurer. I like the comforts of air conditioning and a soft bed as much as anyone. But I do love being out in the natural world, especially in our National Parks. I love the fresh air, the amazing sights and sounds and smells of unspoiled earth. I enjoy watching clouds and shadows move across the landscape, or seeing water work its way slowly through tough rock. And yes, I love photographing these beautiful landscapes as much as any other iPhone-toting tourist. But I try as much as possible to live in the moment, to feel every ounce of life pouring out of a point in space, to notice the trees and the flowers and the birds and the rocks along the way. I'm not always successful, but I do try.

I have observed many, however, who simply visit a place because it was highly rated on Google or had a popular hashtag on Instagram. They come, take their picture, and leave, without so much as a second thought about the majesty of the place and moment. One such moment that I reflect on often was on the hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah. This is perhaps the most iconic of all the arches in the Western United States and one that is almost always busy when we visit the park. While we were hiking to the arch, we encountered several groups of tourists who were not at all prepared for the hike, which is neither short nor easy. One woman had on high heels and looked was better prepared to go to a fancy restaurant than hike in the middle of the desert. Another was wearing sandals and had nothing besides a camera and a smartphone (the hike is about 3 miles, so carrying water with you is strongly advised).

Another experience I reflect on often is a recent trip to New York City, where we were able to visit the 9/11 memorial area, which to me felt like hallowed ground. While we did take a few pictures, we tried not to talk loudly or disrupt the experience for others. There were many people taking selfies in front of the memorial or vlogging loudly in the crowd of tourists. They got their video or picture and left as quickly as they had come, on to check the next popular site off their list.

I think a focus on experiences is wonderful! I'll take a trip to the zoo with my daughter any day over buying her another junky toy or going on a hike over going to a shopping mall. But is there really a benefit to focusing more on experiences if you're treating them like things? Another patch on your vest? Another pic for your followers? Are you just doing something for the likes?

I don't have some grand solution to the problem of commodifying experiences, but I do think that we should examine our “why”. Why do you want to go and do this thing or that? Why do you want to visit Delicate Arch or the 9/11 Memorial? Is it because that's what everyone else does? Or for the sweet Instagram followers? Or to make your neighbors/friends/coworkers jealous? Or is it to marvel at the beauty of the natural world, get some fresh air, learn about geology, pay respects to the lost souls, and honor a great nation? I think the more we question our “why” behind our actions, the more we'll have authentic experiences that will stick with us beyond some likes on social media and that will fill our lives with more than fleeting pleasure at our follower count.