Re: Consumption

Shawn Blanc, on the use of the verb consume in technology parlance:

If you were to say that you are “consuming the content” on this website, it would be a fancy way of saying you are reading. But consuming has far more relation to food than it does to words. It would be awkward for me to say that this website doesn’t have readers, it has consumers.

As Blanc outlines, though the word makes sense in its usage, we still get the feeling it isn’t the best option. Why not?

Superlatively, in our use of the word, “consuming” is utilitarian and efficient: a quick way to describe multiple actions without having to outline each one. It functions as a linguistic shortcut, rather than a fancy synonym for reading, watching or listening. In Blanc’s above example, “consumuing the content” does sound fancy and pretentious because it exaggerates and implies (whether true or not) more than what his readers actually do on his site, which is reading. However, saying the iPad is a “consumption device” isn’t pompous; it simply alleviates the writer from having to say “the iPad is a device for reading, watching, sharing and learning” every time he wants to describe it as such.

Subliminally, “consuming” also has pejorative connotations. Using Blanc’s analogy to food, the act of “consuming” is plain, brash, vulgar, and uncaring. The term makes us cringe because it suggests that the things we consume are unimportant, low-brow afterthoughts.

I consumed this movie

Wouldn’t you rather “feast” on content, “savor” it, “enjoy” it?

I enjoyed this movie

Further still, “consuming” can also be construed as “consumerism”, another term that raises the ire of most people. No one wants to be described as a mindless “consumer”.

(Strangely enough, you could in fact consider readers of a website “consumers”. I purchased a membership to Blanc’s website. Could you not make the argument I must therefore be a consumer of his site’s content?)

A somewhat colloquial term, we automatically infer that “consuming” is inferior to the sophisticated act of “creating”. Blanc is right when stating that most people describing the iPad as a “consumption” device do so to negatively compare it to traditional PCs, which let you “create”. And while it is debatable that the iPad lends itself more to certain types of activity, that fact alone doesn’t invalidate it as a serious tool. Herein lies the crux of the issue: the need for a term that describes the iPad as ideally constructed for certain activities without making the device, and its users, feel like a second class citizen.

Finding a suitable replacement can be tough. After all, describing the iPad as only for “feasting” or “savoring” content obviously sounds wrong. While undesirable, the verb consume has the specific ability to describe a specific method of interaction. Specifically, it differentiates between two types of interactions: activities where the user engages and influences the content being presented to him, and others where he is disengaged, merely a spectator.

Abstractly, you could call define those actions as dynamic and static engagements, or perhaps active and passive interactions. But is that any better way to describe the iPad?

The iPad is for passive interactions.

The iPad is a static computer.

Describing it this way is as biased as using “for consumption”. It still delineates between something good and something bad. Who wants to own a passive computer?

Hence why I come to agree with Blanc’s implied conclusion: that perhaps we should describe each specific action we take on our iPad.

The iPad isn’t a “consumption device”, it is a computer particularly suitable to the acts of reading, watching, listening and learning.

And who can argue that growing from and becoming inspired by content is worse than “creating” it? In fact, aren’t many of the best creators of media also often its biggest consumers?