Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Essays

The Great Malformation

A personal skirmish in the battle for attention.

Talbot Brewer

Small Girl in a Red Dress with a Basket of Apples (detail), 1950s,by Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita (1886–1968); © Foujita Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2023.

It is some twenty years ago, and I am sitting on the second floor of my house, reading and writing, as I do so many weekends. My children are in the basement, lost in video games. My five-year-old told me this morning how, in his dreams, he becomes a character from one of these games, fighting and vanquishing terrible enemies, and wakes sometimes unsure where he is, thrusting a sword in the dark, attempting to spear an orc.

I glance out the window, and it is a beautiful day outside. The first taste of spring, already in the middle of what has been a forbidding February by Virginia standards. My children show little interest in how things are outdoors. They seem bored by it, mostly, though when I drag them into some venture their spirits sometimes visibly brighten. The suggestion of a walk in the woods has attained the status of a family joke. It is something grown-ups try to talk you into, like church, and it is to be resisted at all costs. Yet unlike church, it is usually enjoyed in the end. Which raises real questions about the nature of the counterweights that give rise to this particular resistance.

No doubt this predicament owes partly to the tone of moral disapproval that has infected almost any suggestion I might make about what to do together. It is the death knell of enthusiasm for any possible activity that parents are known to favor it. My eleven-year-old, who was an avid reader only last year, now puts books in the same category as walks in the woods, with the small advantage that books offer a realm into which one can enter alone, without grown-ups in tow, and are at least sometimes mildly interesting.

The makers of video games know their business. They have devised a spellbinding world, one that eclipses the real world in the experience of many children. What is being forged in these interactions with the screen is a fantasy domain of a novel type. Fantasy must be strictly distinguished from imagination. Fantasy inures one to the world, seizing it as an infinitely pliable tool for private distortions. The workings of fantasy have no element of learning, and because they produce nothing that is alien to the self, there is no effective resistance to their impetus. Hence, they occasion no real growth. Imagination, by contrast, is a straining to see into the world, to reorder its given features into new and revelatory patterns. It requires a partly recalcitrant world to inform its constructions.

If my children have extended their fantasies at the expense of their imagination, no doubt I am partly to blame. Yet we must reject the tired truism that this is all really a question of family choices, and hence, ultimately, of parental responsibility. This is the ruse by which the real determinants of our culture’s distinctive contours hide themselves from our critical gaze. The culture of our young people is not simply the sum total of a set of atomized family choices that happen to converge, as if by some mutual contagion of taste or some unlikely coincidence, on a screen-intensive mode of being.

In its general contours, the problem under discussion is hardly new. It is unprecedented only in its scale. More than two centuries ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted that a proper man could not be raised except in near complete isolation from society. He fathered five children out of wedlock, but decided to abandon them to a foundling home rather than so much as to attempt to carry through the ideal plan of socialization to which he painstakingly adhered in crafting his own private and purely imaginary boy in his book Émile. In my view, parenthood comes with an ironclad obligation to raise one’s children as best one can under whatever circumstances happen to be in place, but I would have some sympathy for a modern-day Rousseau who refused to go about the daily exertions of parenting because of an awareness that intrusive social forces were likely to recruit his children into a compromised and alien vision of human life.

Here we arrive at the deep truth in the dictum that it takes a village to raise a child. Where the village is not conducive to good parenting, the parent can hardly hope to compensate fully. My ex-wife and I were lucky that twenty years ago—and perhaps through the subsequent decade—there was still enough of a village to support our efforts to assist our two sons into what I can only gratefully say turned out to be their quite fulfilling maturity.

But today, I fear, the village has been all but shouldered out of its socializing role. The villagers are too often found behind closed doors, watching television or surfing the Internet. When they do appear in public, they are increasingly prone to do so with portable electronic devices in hand, phoning or surfing or tweeting their way through virtual realms, leaving the village streets full of moving bodies but emptied of human presence. This same retreat from shared physical spaces is observable even—or, rather, especially—in the inner sanctum of the home, where brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and children, are increasingly found alongside each other yet absent to each other, cocooned in mesmerizing solipsism, ghosting even themselves and their own lives. The human race is on its way to becoming seven or eight billion perfect societies of one, each bound in what Stephen Colbert once called “solitarity” with other human beings, somewhere or another—who knows where—who themselves are busy absenting themselves from their families and homes. Where are the children being raised in such a world heading? What are they being urged to care about, cultivated to do and to be? What conception of the human good, if any, is implicit in, supported by, or coincident with this sort of upbringing?

A Novel Experiment in Socialization

Culture is the soil, the sunlight, the nourishment that we human beings need to come into our own. Just as we cultivate the earth and try to make it fruitful with the received practices that we call agriculture, so too we cultivate successive generations of human beings and try to make their lives fruitful by passing along the received practices that we call culture. Yet there is a crucial difference between these two forms of cultivation. We grow crops and raise livestock with our own good foremost in mind. But unless we are truly abysmal parents, we raise our children with their good foremost in mind. We may differ greatly in our ideas of what our children’s good consists. But we have almost everywhere and always strived to pass along a way of life that will be good not merely for our generation, which will soon be gone, but for our children, so that they, and hence in the largest sense we (the polity, human beings), might have a worthy future.

What we are living through is the unplanned and mostly unnoticed obsolescence of this very basic element of the human form of life. The work of cultural transmission is increasingly being conducted in such a way as to maximize the earnings of those who oversee it. Their instruments of acculturation now find their way into the family sanctum, diverting our attention from our kin and toward a variety of screen-based fascinations that are well known to make us more lonely, less capable of intimacy, more prone to depression, less capable of concerted and undistracted attention, more riven by consumer desires, less empathetic, and less capable of calm and well-reasoned political debate—that is, entirely unlike how any sane society would wish its progeny to be. The market economy torn free from the rest of cultural life some half-dozen generations ago has now turned upon its parent and consumed her. The work of the polity that Aristotle regarded as most crucial—the acculturation of successive generations—increasingly occurs as the unplanned aggregate effect of corporate profit-seeking, in a direction that few regard as genuinely good for the next generation. This novel experiment in socialization raises anew the concern that we might prove unable to keep our republic (as Benjamin Franklin put it), or even our humanity.

Culture and Industrialization

If we wish to understand our predicament, we will first need to understand, at least in brief outline, the cultural dimensions of the rise of industrial capitalism and its replacement by the postindustrial capitalist economy of today. Perhaps the most influential account of the first chapter of this story appears in the writings of the eminent German sociologist Max Weber. He held that industrial capitalism needs a particular cultural setting to take root. It depends upon the widespread occurrence of a motive to do something that does not come naturally to human beings: to create enterprises and use the profits not for immediate personal enjoyment but for continuous expansion, without any set limit, of the enterprise that generates the profits. Industrial capitalism also depends upon a widespread readiness, among those consigned to factory labor, to apply themselves diligently to mind-numbingly repetitive tasks for most of their waking hours for nothing more than a subsistence wage.

Weber thought the historical source of this odd nexus of motives could be located in Calvinist, Methodist, and Pietist sects of Protestantism, which encouraged believers to view their occupation, however humble or exalted, as a divine calling whose zealous pursuit had a value tied not merely to worldly comfort but to eternal salvation. Most notably in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Weber posited that it was this delicate blend of worldliness and unworldliness that propelled the massive industrialization witnessed in Great Britain and portions of continental Europe and the northeastern United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

One basic tenet of Weber’s account is that fundamental changes in the economy are best explained by deep configurations of the culture, not the other way around. This is arguably the right view of preindustrial and newly industrialized societies, where economic activity is too contained and communicative technology too primitive to reshape the culture to any significant degree. Yet as we have begun to see, it is a highly dubious picture of advanced industrial societies. As industrial capitalism matures, it gradually colonizes large swaths of the culture, whose evolution is then subject to being steered by the same decentralized and unplanned processes that serve up the other benefits and burdens of capitalism.

In The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944), the other great historian of the Industrial Revolution, Karl Polanyi, lamented what he called the “disembedding” of the economy from the sociocultural forms and practices with which it had previously been intimately entangled. We are now able to see that this was but the beginning of a greater and more disturbing transformation than Polanyi, writing in the mid-twentieth century, was in a position to appreciate. The market has now engulfed, and badly disfigured, the culture from which it was torn free some two centuries ago. We are accustomed to this arrangement and not generally awake to its perversity. When we enter the sphere of getting and spending, our activity is shaped by the pursuit of profits, and unlikely to cleave to any compelling conception of the human good. Presumably we do this in order to gain the resources we need to pursue genuine goods in the remainder of our lives. When the market swallows this remainder and seeks to reshape it to maximize profits, it becomes an impediment, not a contribution, to human flourishing.

The embedding of the culture in the economy has been a slow and complicated historical process, one whose onset cannot be assigned a precise date. But a tipping point, at least in Western Europe and North America, came during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century (that is, just as Weber was putting forward his conjectures about the origins of capitalism). The first century of industrialization had by then sparked an enormous increase in economic productivity, and the supply of many goods was consistently outstripping demand. This imbalance caused a rolling series of severe gluts in different manufacturing sectors, marked by crashing prices and waves of bankruptcies. These gluts contributed to a prolonged downturn in the economies of Western Europe and North America from the 1870s through the 1890s. So devastating was this downturn that it was widely called “The Great Depression” until that name was claimed by the even more severe crisis of the 1930s.

Gluts in supply presented a new and historically unprecedented economic challenge. While early capitalists could restrict their attention largely to the efficient production of consumer goods that met long-recognized, pre-existing demands, late-nineteenth-century capitalists had to undertake the production of a new good, one that could not be grown in a field or made in a factory. They had to undertake the mass production of consumer desire. What stood in the way of this project was precisely the ascetic strand of Christianity that, at least by Weber’s lights, had been so crucial to the entrepreneurial zeal of capitalists and the work ethic of laborers in the early phase of industrialization. Something had to give: either the very possibility of sustained and dynamic economic growth, or the long tradition of religious aversion to acquisitiveness.

Looking back on the first century of this cultural and economic showdown, it is not hard to see which contender has won. Just consider what we now do when we set aside our work and gather to express the values that bind us together. Here in the United States, we cut short our Thanksgiving retreat and join long queues in front of big-box stores so we can elbow each other over Black Friday markdowns. And we do this, as often as not, to amass consumer goods for gift exchange at the next family gathering, which (at least nominally) celebrates the birth of a man who counseled his followers to sell all of their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.

It was not long ago that thrift and frugality counted as important virtues. They were proof of a proper aversion to wasting the bounty of the earth and a laudable thankfulness for one’s share. These attributes were regarded as signs of self-mastery and as conducive to independence and happiness. We can still hear these connotations in the shared roots of thrift and thriving, frugality and fruition. Yet apart from these faint etymological echoes, little remains of the notion that frugality is commendable in itself. We do occasionally repeat one or two of Franklin’s maxims, especially “A penny saved is a penny earned.” But we seldom hear the sterner, more ascetic nuggets found in Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733–58): “Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt.” “Content makes poor men rich; Discontent makes rich men poor.” “If you desire many things, many things will seem but a few.” “Avarice and happiness never saw each other, how then shou’d they become acquainted?” To our colonial ancestors, such sayings were sources of inspiration and guidance. To us they sound pointlessly puritanical and thoroughly passé. Indeed, we have come so far from the adulation of thrift that the unabashed standard-bearer of extravagant spending—the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” whose name is synonymous with opulence—was elected president of the United States not so long ago.

The Battle for Attention

This cultural revolution could not have come so far so fast without tapping into a very personal resource, located in the inner realm of conscious experience: human attention. There is growing recognition that attention has become an exceedingly valuable and hotly contested commodity.11xFor an insightful discussion of the contemporary battle over attention and its consequences for human flourishing, see Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). It is also sometimes noticed that the market in this resource has a strange and seemingly objectionable structure, in that the owner of the resource would usually prefer that it not be sold and is almost never the one who pockets the proceeds from the sale.

It is hard to think of any other “commodity”—supposing we are willing to bring it under that ominous and omnivorous term—that is as crucial as attention to the tenor of our daily lives. When attention is depleted, there can be no heightened passion, no true friendship, no love. Without attention, we are not genuinely available to anyone at all—not to our children, not to our work associates, not to the strangers walking past us on the sidewalk. Even our most private deeds unfold at arm’s length without the perfecting consummation of enthusiasm. Attention has these enormous powers because it serves as the portal to thinking and acting. No course of activity can so much as suggest itself to us unless our attention is structured by some awareness of its possibility. And no activity fully worthy of a human being can blossom unless it is carried forward and completed by avid attention to the valuable possibilities latent in it.

It is, then, a matter of no small consequence that this resource is now so heavily exploited. Indeed, commercial competition for it appears to be making a significant contribution to one of the defining psychological maladies of our age: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There is a well-documented positive correlation between increased screen time during childhood and subsequent diagnoses of ADHD.22xIt should be noted, however, that there are lingering disputes about whether it is the ADHD that draws children to electronic media as a technique of self-pacification, or screen time that triggers ADHD by cultivating a taste for rapid-fire and attention-arresting imagery. On this debate, see Perri Klass, “Fixated by Screens, but Seemingly Nothing Else,” New York Times, May 9, 2011,, and Nearly one in five American children between the ages of eleven and seventeen has been diagnosed with ADHD.33xSarah D. Sparks, “Attention Deficit Rates Skyrocket in High School. Mentoring Could Prevent an Academic Freefall,” Education Week, August 23, 2021, Of those who have been diagnosed, more than half are having their condition treated with powerful psychoactive stimulants.44xM.L. Danielson et al., “Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among US Children and Adolescents, 2016,” Journal of Clinical Child Adolescent Psychology 47, no. 2 (2018): 199–212, cited in Mark L.Wolraich et al., “Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 144, no. 4 (October 2019), note 11, We are medicating children (and, increasingly, adults) in rapidly growing numbers in hopes of reclaiming our capacity for sustained attention. It would be a stunning coincidence if the rise of this epidemic were not due in large part to the simultaneous rise of fierce competition for the resource we are now trying so desperately to repossess.

The first harbingers of this problem were discernible even at the humble beginnings of the age of commercial marketing. As Emily Fogg Mead (mother of Margaret Mead, and a brilliant thinker in her own right) explained in 1901, “The successful advertisement is obtrusive. It continually forces itself upon the attention. It may be on signboards, in the streetcar, or on the page of a magazine. Everyone reads it involuntarily. It is a subtle, persistent, unavoidable presence that creeps into the reader’s inner consciousness.”55xQuoted in William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1993), 48. This intrusion into the public consciousness had advanced sufficiently by 1925 that future president Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, was moved to praise the assembled executives of the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World in the following terms:

You have devised an artful ingenuity in forms and mediums of advertising. The landscape has become your vehicle as well as the press. In the past, wish, want, and desire were the motive forces in economic progress. Now you have taken over the job of creating desire. In economics the torments of desire in turn creates [sic] demand, and from demand we create production, and thence around the cycle we land with increased standards of living.66x“Hoover Advocates Less Regulation,” New York Times, May 12, 1925,

The cycle described by Hoover counts as virtuous under any outlook that gives priority to increasing gross domestic product—which is to say, almost any currently influential political position. We continue to make efforts to stoke the cycle today. Yet there is a vast difference in ubiquity and effectiveness between the magazine ads and signboards that so concerned Emily Fogg Mead and the various electronic screens to which we now devote so large a share of our daily attention. What was once a peripheral nuisance has become a perpetual assault. This is what has made it possible to bring the acculturation of children and adolescents and the continuous reacculturation of adults within the ambit of the economy.

The battle for attention has changed not only in intensity but in form. Mead was interested in the direct appeal for attention made by advertisements themselves. But it is not the ads themselves that command the lion’s share of our attention now. The job is done, instead, by the enterprises known as attention brokers. This market sector aims to harvest the resource of human attention so that it can be auctioned, via lightning-fast automated processes, to the highest bidder. The profitability of these corporations depends in large part on the number of eyeballs attending to their offerings. But it also depends on the quality of the harvest. Attention is generally most valuable when it is uncritical and suggestible, though for some (usually political) purposes its value is enhanced when it is inflected by anger or hatred.

The time and attention we now devote to our various “black mirrors” has become an astonishingly profitable commodity. Seven of the ten most valuable companies in the world today are either in the attention brokerage business or in the business of making the hardware and software this market sector requires.77xFor a list of the ten largest companies on the planet, ranked by market capitalization, see Matthew Johnston, “Biggest Companies in the World by Market Cap,”, September 24, 2022, I am counting Apple (1), Microsoft (3), Alphabet/Google (4), Amazon (5), NVIDIA (8), Taiwan Semiconductor (9), and Meta/Facebook (10) as engaged either directly or indirectly in the attention brokerage business.  If the net effect of this market sector is the unplanned socialization of children and resocialization of adults, then (re)socialization is, by a very wide margin, the most heavily capitalized undertaking of the contemporary economy. The embedding of the culture in the economy, then, is not a peripheral economic phenomenon. It is, in the most literal sense, a big deal.

Proselytizing Without True Believers

It is not easy to get a clear-eyed view of the dimensions of this transmutation, since we are still in the middle of it. As Hegel said about such matters, the owl of Minerva (i.e., wisdom, in the form of clarity about a deep cultural change) flies only at dusk, and we have probably only reached midafternoon. Still, I am prepared to venture that this engulfing of culture by the market will appear in retrospect as one of history’s more thorough and far-reaching revolutions in value—comparable in depth and eventual ripple effects to the Christianization of the late Roman world. What inclines me to offer this bold prediction is not merely the global reach of the change under discussion, nor merely its unprecedented capacity to penetrate nearly every passing moment of life with its “glad tidings.” What most strongly inclines me to regard the change as radical is that its basic dynamics beggar description.

For example, we might be tempted to say that what we are witnessing is the rise of a novel culture with increasingly global reach, promulgated by an equally novel form of acculturation. This would not be flatly wrong, but it carries a penumbra of suppositions and connotations that simply do not fit our moment. A culture, we are inclined to think, is a way of seeing, thinking, and acting, internalized by some group of humans and passed down to their children over some stretch of generations, that provides a shared orientation to life and a shared set of customs, ideals, institutions, and practices. A culture shapes our predeliberative sense of the world around us and the meaningful actions it makes possible. Acculturation, in turn, is the process by which we pass along to the next generation a form of life that we ourselves have internalized and that expresses our sense of how it is good for us to live and to be.

This picture of culture and its relation to acculturation is a bedrock element of our sense of what we human beings have in common. We would be astonished to discover a human community that did not attempt to pass along to its children a form of life that had won the affirmation of its elders. We would be utterly flabbergasted to discover a community that went to great lengths to pass along a form of life that its elders regarded as seriously deficient or mistaken. Yet we have slipped unawares into precisely this bizarre arrangement. We devote an extraordinary share of our accumulated wealth and creative talent to the task of imprinting the young with an evaluative outlook most of us view with abiding suspicion.

The intrusion into our attention of commercial messages is by no means the whole of the change underway. To take its full measure, we would have to consider the effects on our psyches of social media, smartphones, and an array of virtual experiences, including the video games that so thoroughly claimed the attention of my sons when they were children. Yet commercial advertisement has the benefit of being a quantifiable phenomenon. Hence, it permits us to begin to take the measure of this change. Consider, then, the following statistics. The average six-year-old in the United States sees 40,000 commercial messages per year and can name 200 brands.88xJuliet B. Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (New York, NY: Scribner, 2005), 19–21. Worldwide expenditures on advertising are expected to exceed $800 billion in 202399x“Advertising Spending Worldwide From 2000 to 2024,”, June 2022, See also Brad Adgate, “Agencies Agree; 2021 Was A Record Year for Ad Spending, With More Growth Expected in 2022,” Forbes, December 8, 2021, and to approach $350 billion in the United States alone.1010x“Advertising Spending in North America From 2000 to 2024,”, June 2021, By comparison, the total annual budget of the Vatican for all purposes is about $860 million.1111x“Vatican’s 2022 ‘Mission Budget’ Shows Deficit, But Less Than Last Year,” La Croix International, January 28, 2022, Even if the Vatican devoted half of its annual budget to proselytism, its budget for reshaping the minds of the citizenry of the world would be barely more than 1/2000th of the amount spent each year on commercial advertising.

This might seem an inapt comparison. After all, advertisers are not attempting to win converts to a religion. They are trying to sell goods and services. Further, their messages are not all the same. Each is trying to sell a different good or service. If the message of one advertiser meets with success, this will often mean failure for some other advertiser. Yet there is a common core to the messages advertisers put before our minds: They tell us that consumption is a centrally important pathway to the happy life, and that a wide range of corporations have made it their purpose to help us along this pathway. That is, they provide a picture of the good life and an ideological justification of the prevailing economic order in terms of that picture of the good life. They invite us to enjoy a passive reconciliation with the social order. One simply eases into the armchair or feels the instantaneous surge of the car at the touch of the accelerator, and directly experiences how the world of things has been sculpted by others so as to guarantee its responsiveness to the wishes it has itself helped to uncork.

These palpable signs of what economists are wont to call (misleadingly, I think) our consumer sovereignty might well dull our taste for political sovereignty, breeding acquiescence in oligarchy or corporatocracy. If so, then corporate interests do not find their way into politics only by hiring lobbyists and by paying to amplify the speech of favored candidates. These interests are continually waging a campaign that is political in the broadest sense—a campaign to sustain the unreflective allegiance of the populace to the prevailing form of socioeconomic life.

Aside from this possible threat to political autonomy, advertising promulgates a particular, highly dubious conception of the human good. This picture of the good life may well be too fragmentary to count as what the political philosopher John Rawls would call a “comprehensive conception” of the human good, but it is suited to serve as an element of such conceptions. The $650 billion worth of commercial messages that make their bid each year for the eyes and ears of the world are a de facto form of proselytism on behalf of the class of comprehensive conceptions of the human good that give this consumerist element a central place.

If indeed this does count as a form of proselytism, it is the most potent sort of proselytism the world has ever seen. It makes a more successful bid for the continuous attention of humankind, and does more to shape the actual perspectives, daily activities, and desires of human beings, than any prior program of proselytism. Yet what is unprecedented about this proselytism is not its scope or success but its automaticity. It has no need of true believers. Those who create and disseminate its communiqués have reason to do their jobs, and to make their messages maximally effective, even if they do not believe the specific product they are peddling to be good, and even if they view consumerism with deep ambivalence.

We cannot say with empirical certainty that this global proselytism goes forward without true believers, but I have a hunch that it does. The world business community would not waste $650 billion per year on ads that did not work. At the same time, though, I doubt that this massive advertising effort is bringing consumers’ considered evaluative judgments into line with the desires and actions to which it gives rise. It makes reluctant consumers of us, uneasy with our own desires.

This conjecture fits nicely with the empirical evidence I have been able to find. For instance, it makes sense of a survey that found that in the United States, home of the world’s most avid consumers, more than 80 percent of the population believed that their fellow Americans bought and consumed far too much and that young people were objectionably obsessed with material acquisitions.1212xThis finding derives from a survey conducted in 1995 by the Merck Family Fund and disseminated under the title “Yearning for Balance: Views on Consumption, Materialism and the Environment”; A recent Tufts University study provides further evidence of our uneasiness with our own consumerist desires. As the study notes, “while a higher income tends to be associated with greater well-being, an excessive focus on money, status, and material possessions tends to lower well-being” (29). Further, some people have begun to reject consumerism and take up a lifestyle of “voluntary simplicity” (31). See Brian Roach, Neva Goodwin and Julie Nelson, Consumption and the Consumer Society (Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, updated 2023), The survey respondents cannot all have been right yet all have been acting on the judgments the survey unveiled. The idea of the reluctant consumer also helps to explain why there is hardly a single serious thinker who unapologetically champions consumerism, despite its pervasive and growing influence over actual human behavior.1313xJames Twitchell rightly considers himself to be taking an extremely unusual stance when he sets out to offer even “two cheers” for materialism. “Who but fools, toadies, hacks, and occasional loopy libertarians have ever risen to its defense?” he asks. He goes on to claim that “the really interesting question may not be why we are so materialistic, but why we are so unwilling to acknowledge and explore what seems the central characteristic of modern life.” See Twitchell, “Two Cheers for Materialism,” Wilson Quarterly 23, no. 2 (Spring 1999), 28.  It explains, in other words, why consumerism and distaste for consumerism have arisen together, as two halves of a single remarkably successful psychological form.

There are reasons to suspect, then, that this program of proselytism does in fact go forward with relatively few true believers. That is, it might well be the case that its agents of persuasion would prefer a world that was less consumerist, yet realize that if they were to refuse to perform their role, someone else would happily take their place. If these ruminations are on target, the contemporary phenomenon of automatic consumerist proselytism would seem to count as a “tragedy of the commons.” Everyone supposedly would prefer a less consumerist cultural environment even at the cost of the personal benefits each of us would have to forego to sustain such an environment. The difference from more familiar tragedies of the commons (e.g., global warming, depletion of fish stocks, overgrazing of pastures) lies in the fact that the public good under threat is a feature of the cultural rather than the natural environment. So we might call it a tragedy of the cultural commons.

In a 1972 US Supreme Court case much discussed by political philosophers, Wisconsin v. Yoder, the majority ruled that Wisconsin’s mandatory schooling requirements impinged upon the religious liberty of Amish parents because it required them to immerse their children each school day in an alien way of life—one that was deeply hostile to their religious beliefs and values. The Amish believe in working together, fostering strong communal bonds, living a simple and self-sufficient life, and refusing any technological mediation of their relationship to the earth and to the labor essential for subsistence. Stating the Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that Amish children who attended public schools remote from their own communities faced “a hydraulic insistence on conformity to majoritarian standards.” The Court found that this “hydraulic” pressure imposed an undue burden on the free exercise of religion, partly because it interfered with parents’ efforts to pass along their religious convictions and way of life to their children.1414xWisconsin v. Yoder, 406 US 205 (1972);

If the picture I have offered of consumerist proselytism is roughly on target, then almost all of us bear a burden very similar to the one the Supreme Court thought the Amish should not have to bear. Almost all of us are at least mildly estranged from the best-amplified and most attention-grabbing symbolic speech through which the culture shapes its own future by sculpting the souls of its offspring. In a sense, we all share the lot of besieged cultural minorities—a truly unprecedented condition that can be explained only by the embedding of acculturation within the unguided dynamics of the market.

Liberal Approaches to Our Plight

Liberal theorists are torn about how to assess Wisconsin v. Yoder, since it pits an interest that seems essential to the free exercise of serious religious belief (the interest in passing one’s beliefs and daily devotional practices on to one’s children) against autonomy-based appeals to what Joel Feinberg called “the child’s right to an open future.”1515xJoel Feinberg, “The Child’s Right to an Open Future,” in Freedom and Fulfillment: Philosophical Papers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994): 76–97. On liberal theorists’ quandary over Wisconsin v. Yoder, see Christian Fernández, “Education and Diversity: Two Stories of a Liberal Dilemma,” Public Affairs Quarterly 24, no. 4 (2010): 279–96. These theorists should, it seems, be less equivocal about the program of automatic proselytism we have been considering, since it interferes both with the interests of parents in shaping the upbringing of their children and with the interests of children in having an open future.

Political philosophies are shaped largely by their nightmares. One nightmare that fuels a great deal of liberal theory is that it will not be possible for different religious communities to live together without resorting to oppression or violence. The civic republican nightmare is that the preferred antidote to the liberal nightmare—namely, state neutrality about the human good—will produce a consumerist monoculture within which citizens will lose any taste either for the common good or for their own good properly understood.1616xSee for instance Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

When it comes to the domestic politics of Western liberal democracies, this latter nightmare seems more attuned to the times than the former. And if this nightmare really is attuned to our times, I think it ought to haunt liberals every bit as much as civic republicans. Because it now threatens to reduce a once vibrant pluralism to a consumerist monoculture, insistence upon neutrality begins to seem like a pointless fetish.

The preoccupation with neutrality is not the only element of liberal thought that stands in the way of an apt response to the problem. Liberal ideas of the just distribution of income and wealth can also get in the way. It is very nearly a fixed point in contemporary political debate that a primary goal of politics is to increase economic productivity. Economists tend to think that if fairness in distribution is to be pursued, this is best done after maximizing the size of the pie to be divided. Under this widespread assumption, the cycle of increased consumer desire and increased production is virtuous, and our political and economic ingenuity ought to be directed toward setting such cycles in motion.

Given current patterns of climate change and resource depletion, our lavish consumer habits appear to be coming at the expense of future generations. Liberals are deeply chagrined by this, and quite rightly insist that the interests of future generations must be counted on an equal footing when we assess the justice of our economic practices. This insistence has yielded a sustained and powerful critique of contemporary consumer habits. Yet this critique assumes an interesting new shape when conjoined with the cultural considerations set out in this essay. What this more inclusive critique makes clear is that our current consumption-intensive economic order is bad not only for the long-term health of the natural environment but also for immediate condition of the cultural environment. As a consequence, what we are called to do is not to make sacrifices for those who have not yet been born. We need to do something less onerous yet more difficult. We need to come to our senses and abandon an unprecedented and perverse form of acculturation that is bad for current and future generations alike.

A Comedy of the Cultural Commons?

A well-constituted virtual realm would be one in which communicative exchanges contributed to mutual enrichment and enlightenment, not to manipulation in search of profits. Such an arrangement clearly qualifies as a public good. The ongoing tragedy of the cultural commons is the result of background incentive structures that move things toward impoverishment. But contemporary technologies of communication, conjoined with the right incentive structures, offer at least the theoretical possibility of a communicative sphere that moves toward the other pole—that is, toward bounty, mutual edification, and enlightenment, and maybe even stronger bonds of mutual affection. We might call this pole a “comedy of the cultural commons.” The challenge before us is how we might reshape the still novel communicative sphere opened up by new technologies in order to propel ourselves toward this happy condition.

We are, by all appearances, headed in just the opposite direction. I recall a moment many years ago when I realized I was drinking a beer at a bar in Boston where everybody was silently watching Cheers—a show about a bar in Boston where everybody knows your name and wants to talk to you. It turns out that this little ironic moment was a sign of things to come. During the COVID years, we grew accustomed to being “alone together” (to borrow Sherry Turkle’s apt phrase).1717xSherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011). The virtual realm became the focal center of our lives even while we were locked down with our loved ones, sometimes because we had to be onscreen to make a living, but often just because it afforded a soothing escape from the ordeal of travel restrictions, quarantines, and fear of deadly contagion. There is a strange comfort, a hypnotic ease, in the ministrations of the attention brokers. They have made it their business to encourage the aimless meandering and impressionable lingering that maximize the market value of other people’s waking hours.

There is money, too, in the addictive simulacrum of sociality found on social media sites, which have rapidly emerged as crucial scenes of social and ethical formation. It is here that our citizenry is coming apart at the seams, here that our children now come into their own or unravel on their own. And they are unraveling now in truly alarming numbers. Rates of anxiety and major depressive disorders have shot up dramatically among teenagers and preteens. So have suicidal thoughts and completed suicides. Things have become especially bleak for teenage and preteen girls, among whom major depressive episodes and hospitalizations for self-harm have roughly doubled in the last fourteen years. The best explanation for this crisis—indeed, the only explanation that seems capable of accounting for its sudden onset and global reach—is the rise of social media.1818xThe relevant data, and an argument for the hypothesis that social media is causing the crisis, can be found in the work of the prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. A helpful summary can be found in his 2022 Senate testimony on the subject: “Teen Mental Health Is Plummeting, and Social Media Is a Major Contributing Cause. Testimony of Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership, New York University—Stern School of Business, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Technology, Privacy, and the Law” (May 4, 2022), US Senate,

The strongest arguments for unregulated markets all turn on some variation of the thought that free markets are the most efficient way of satisfying our preferences and hence advancing our good as we conceive of it. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that free markets are also good at shaping our preferences or forming our conceptions of the good. Hence, the strongest arguments for unregulated markets no longer apply to what has become the largest economic sector in the global economy today. There is no obvious reason to extend laissez faire ideals to the market in attention, and there are especially strong reasons not to extend them to the market in our children’s attention. We have, nonetheless, sleepwalked into a sweeping experiment with this extension. The results of this experiment are now becoming clear: It is a sure way to cause our children to suffer and to rip apart our republic at its seams. I would not hazard to say what specific set of policies and grassroots efforts would best address this problem, but leaving our future in the hands of large unregulated corporations is surely not the answer.1919xPassage of the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA), introduced in the Senate in December of 2022 by Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), would be a welcome step, but only a preliminary one. The bill would give researchers access to the data needed to clarify the problem so that suitable legislative remedies might then be devised.

Nor do I mean to suggest that it is only our kids who are faring poorly. I see the effects of our new virtual habitus in my own diminishing capacity for sustained attention. I see them when my friends and I get together and we take turns being interrupted by our phones. More and more, our lives happen there, on the screens of the bleeping little tyrants in our pockets. We are in thrall to them to a degree I could never have imagined twenty years ago, when I was the family advocate for walks in the woods.

These days I find myself retreating to my bedroom more often than I know I should. It is a habit that took root during the dreary days of the pandemic, and one I have not yet managed to shake. Once there, I often find myself absently fiddling with my phone. I have my excuses—plenty of them. There are emails to check, many of them work related and some of them urgent. There is, too, the news to read—a neverending supply of it, most of it depressing. Am I not obligated to stay abreast of wars and natural disasters, wherever they occur, so that the senseless suffering of others does not pass by unnoticed? Sometimes I turn to something more uplifting—for instance, pictures of a place where we might vacation as a family. I see us swimming in that cliff-encircled cove on the Algarve coast, on a family vacation we’re probably never going to take. That is just where my thoughts were lingering one day not long ago, when my eight-year-old daughter—the great blessing of my second marriage—skipped into the room. I am astonished daily at the sparkling zest she was born with and still brings with her everywhere she goes. “Daddy,” she said, “please get off your phone. Come play with us!” I dropped the phone in shame and hopped to my feet.

I found my little family encircling the kitchen table, all eyes riveted on a growing tower of Jenga blocks. My daughter smoothly extracted a block from the middle of the tower and gently placed it on top. Now it was her grandma’s turn. The third in our trio of parent figures, she brings to our clan a steady familial loyalty and love, forged in the old-world milieu of Shiraz, a great Iranian city now hobbled and bent by the rigid violence of self-righteous clerics. We find a similar old-world solidity in our neighbors—an Iraqi family who survived the war our country visited upon theirs and somehow made it to our town, bringing with them a son who is as at home in our house as our daughter is in theirs.

With this little cluster of displaced souls, all longing for a space of peace and goodness, and a loose circle of goodhearted families with whom we have bonded, we hope we have at least a working fragment of that village it takes to raise a child. It is enough, at least, to give me hope. And it must be said, at least, that our daughter has been copiously loved. The Persian turns of phrase her mother and grandparents shower upon her daily have no equal in English that does not sound absurdly melodramatic: “I am ready to sacrifice myself for you.” “Let me die for you.” I don’t always understand what is said, but I see the feelings these ritual words draw forth. They have shown me what it means to hold a child in your arms and thoughts, and while I cannot always muster the same passion, I can plainly see the beaming at-homeness in the world this effusive love has given to our child. Maybe, just maybe, she will make it unscathed through the painful trial we have devised for adolescent girls.

The Jenga tower has grown absurdly tall. It is beginning to teeter. We are joined together now—my wife, mother-in-law, and I—by the common object of our attention: this child we love, as she slowly wriggles loose another block, trying not to breathe, then places it on top, like someone trying to defuse a ticking bomb. We are all riveted, hoping that this pocked and wobbly pillar can withstand one more turn around the generations.


A somewhat different version of this essay, published under the title “Comedies of the Cultural Commons,” can be found in Gabriele De Anna and Manuele Dozzi, eds., Political Identity and the Metaphysics of Polities (New York, NY: Routledge, 2023), 203–19.