The Disposable Experience

I’m worried. I’m worried that experiences are becoming disposable. I’m worried that in our striving to make experiences simpler, easier, and faster, we’re also somehow stripping their soul, their meaning.

The subtext beneath this implies that we are supposed to use the time, money and attention that simpler, easier and faster frees up to consume even more experiences. But before we get a chance to really connect with any single given experience, before we can press beyond its surface, before it has a chance to naturally unfold and leave us changed, we’re off to the next one, and the one after that, and so on, and so on.

This raises an important question for designers: is it out job to merely accelerate experience consumption, or is it to deepen and enrich experience connection?

While our own individual answers likely strike some balance between these two extremes, the trend I’m afraid appears to be very much toward acceleration at the expense of connection.

Economically, this makes a lot of sense. Today’s experiences are off-the-shelf products, mass-produced, mass-marketed and mass-consumed. But an experience can only be monetized once, so superficial disposable experiences are much more economically attractive than deep lasting experiences because they can be monetized more frequently.

The economics of the matter then encourages the design of experiences that are standardized, that have extremely short self-lives, and that are disposable. These are to the human soul what McDonald’s is to the human body.

Enough with the abstraction, let’s get concrete.

I don’t listen to music the same way anymore. I don’t know many people who do. When I was a kid all my music was on tape and I didn’t have a lot of money to throw around. So getting new music and listening to it took a lot of time and effort. This time and effort meant listening carefully to each track, listening to whole albums at once, and listening to the same albums over and over again. It was like developing a relationship.

Today I have several gigs of music on my hard drive and I subscribe to Yahoo’s music service which puts several hundred more only click away. I keep some of it on my Zen on constant shuffle (not so sure about the shuffling since it seems to really be enjoying Goldfrapp these days). I have an incredible variety that crosses genres, decades, continents and even tastes, only a click away—and it has all started to blend into one relatively undifferentiated mass of sound with which I have absolutely no emotional connection.

If I don’t get a visceral jolt from a song, click and its on to the next one. Like a junkie I’m chasing that one great high, that one great hook. I can hardly listen to the same artist more than twice a day–and why should I with thousands of artists all clamouring for my ear and approving mouse click. I’m no sooner coming down from the sugar sweetness of Mint Royal than I’m twanging away with Niko Case or camping it up with the Sissor Sisters—it doesn’t really make a difference. It’s all sooo easy. And the medium’s inherent ease keeps me hungry for ever more music, keeps me hooked to the service, and helps ensure that I don’t get too attached to any one song, band or genre.

What originally seemed like such a blessing, is turning into a bit of a curse. Obviously I can still listen the way I used to–nothing is really preventing that. But the medium itself has evolved to tersely discourage close listening, to discourage connection. The medium wants you, it needs you to listen to more, more, more tracks by more artists, more superficially, more disposably. It needs you to consume not connect.

The entire business model of disposability is predicated on rapid, massive, non-reflective, superficial consumption. Fine for tissues, but for music? For experiences?

The effort involved in both production and consumption of music is evaporating. The individual song is fast becoming completely disposable, cheapening music into becoming mere background hippness for life as a Mitsubishi commercial (thanks for ruining T.Rex and the Wiseguys for me Mitsubishi). Its fast, its easy, its non-committal, its autonomic, and there’s plenty more more more where it came from, so no need to pay too much attention to what you’re hearing now.

Truth be told I can no longer stomach the Thievery Corporation because it is so disposable. Forget about the medium, the content itself doesn’t want you to connect with it. It’s mere auditory decoration, mere vapid paint by numbers West Elm lifestyle ‘hipness’ for your ears. There’s nothing to connect with. But I degress…

Of course your personal music experience may be quite different from mine–I’m sure it is at least a little different–and you may not really see it as disposable. That’s fine, because my point here hasn’t been to wax ludditic and moan about how things aren’t as good as they used to be (although I do wonder how Kate Bush would do if she was just starting out today).

My point (in case it got lost in all these words, words, words, dear Polonius) was simply to illustrate the disposability of experience by contrasting my music listening experience of today with yesterday’s, and ask the question of design how will we balance the tension between accelerating consumption and deepening connection without losing our souls or our jobs?

Next time I’ll get into television and how advances in distribution are driving the experience of watching tv shows in the exact opposite direction from listening to music, in terms of experience and connection.

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13 thoughts on “The Disposable Experience

  1. Pingback: Perspective
  2. Dude, maybe you’re just getting old? Hah, just kidding.

    In your analysis you didn’t factor in customer retention. I mentioned Ecco shoes at Niti’s blog. What I forgot to state was that I go back and buy another pair of shoes from them so day. The same cannot be said for McBrands.

    Over the long term which brand is actually more profitable?


  3. Ug! Thanks for reminding me 🙁

    The issue of customer retention is a supply side business metric, while my focus is entirely demand side subjective experiences and their increasingly superficiality.

    But i think i see where you’re going. What are the economics of the accelerated consumption of many superficial experiences versus the retention power of deeply meaningful experiences. A great question I, unfortunately, don’t have answer for (but often asking the question is more important than having the answer).

    Although I think with her point about planned obsolescence Niti suggests that in most cases accelerating superficiality is the winner–economically speaking.

    Of course that may be the case now–but can we change that? How?

  4. Interesting question. I would say that we are now seeing the emergence of a spectrum of experiences (from mass-made and disposable to customized and memorable) similar to that of products. To use your example of musical experience, even as the market for portable and disposable musical experience is growing, so is the one for rare and one-of-a-kind music experience (cf. the rebirth of the LP). At the same time, to use Pine and Gilmore’s terms, the Experience Economy is still young, and it may take some time before it is replaced by the Transformation Economy.

  5. I’m glad you brought up LPs. I never owned a vinyl record till about 6 months ago. Now I have a stack. And I listen to them on one of those single speak record-player-in-a-suit-case kind of things.

    One of my new LPs is a scratched copy of Miles Davis’s Something Blue I found in a 99cent bin. And you what? I listen to it in a very different way from how I listen to it as an mp3. It seems to be a function of the medium itself.

    Certainly new distribution technologies open up all sorts of new possibilities. But as Picasso says, every act of creation is an act of destruction. If this is true, then as designers we need to always wonder what we’re destroying with our creations? Is this worth it? Can we find a way to harmonize the new and old values?

    I thought of The Experience Economy as I wrote this. But I thought of it because I always felt they really misunderstand experience, beyond something to be packaged and sold. Take their Rainforest Café example. I cannot imagine a less fake, less authentic, less fulfilling experience. Yet they laud it. Black Sheep even mentions this example recently.

    Ironically, I did feel somewhat transformed by music back in the day (jeez, I’m gonna start sounding like grandpa Simpson soon) long before the experience designers of Yahoo! started clicking their keyboards.

  6. Ah, Rainforest Café. Do you happen to have children? I do and mine go nuts for the place. Erzatz? You bet. But hey, I’ll take. The lame mechanical snake and alligator is actually kinda cool. For about 5 seconds.


  7. Admittedly, some of them will be going back to the .99cent bin.


    Yes I’m sure the kids love the Rainforest Cafe. When I was a kid we loved McDonalds. Surely we aren’t going to judge the meaning of experiences by how much children enjoy them?

    Enjoyment is beside the point though. One can easily enjoy something complete disposable–that doesn’t change its essential disposability.

    Let me ask this: after they’re done with the Cafe, does it have any lasting impact? Does the experience have any meaning for them beyond the visceral thrill of its theme-park atmosphere? Even though it may be thoroughly enjoyable for the kids, is it not still an entirely disposable experience?

  8. niblettes said : I listen to it in a very different way from how I listen to it as an mp3. It seems to be a function of the medium itself.

    Echoes of Grandmaster McLuhan, of course

  9. It’s fairly simple. There are so many people and so many companies. Marketing and advertising companies want communicate and get their experiences in edgewards when ever they can. So instead of a paper cup, you have themed cup. Instead of a coffee store it becomes an experience. Everyone wants you to have an experience, their experience. The web is full of microsites with expereinces, going to see a film isnt just goign to see a film but it’s about the whole experience. People are not content with just keeping things simple and in the raw because it makes less money.

    Therefore any good experience is jumped upon to associate another expeirence that can make money. For example in the US some bright spark descided to add an ad break before the credits – just to get a few more experiences in there (an ad is an experience after all).

    It’s a bunch of folks competing to give us the best experience but are spoiling it all for everyone by shouting over everyone.

    And the prime example? MTV (what used to be music TV but is not money TV). Didnt they used to play music videos (self contained experiences that lasted the length of the song)?

    The solution. Don’t buy in. You don’t need 1000 songs carried around with you. You don’t need more. You don’t need it here and you don’t need it now. Things need less, slower, possibly ten minutes walk away.

    Become part of the Slow Movement (

    Stew Dean

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