Recently, a young woman I met was explaining her job to me. “I provide an ‘experiential approach’ to shopping malls,” she said. The “experiential approach” is one of the current hot terms in business. From what I’ve read, it works like this: “… experiential retail turns the boring experience of browsing, trying, and buying into something fun and exciting.” Many millennials, I’m told, do not wish to simply purchase pants; they want an immersive activity that makes the purchasing experience more authentic and engaging.
Last week On Point’s Tom Ashbrook interviewed a millennial who spoke about the transcendent benefits of adults’ spending all of their free time playing video games. Callers phoned in eager to justify their electronically engaged evenings. They talked of the many “friends” they had made, and they said that gaming had allowed them to have victories, providing a framework to “experience” life as a winner.
So, what does it mean when a culture needs to spend time and wealth conjuring the means to experience life, when our viewfinder on this world consists mainly of ways to see it as a consumer and a spectator?
I think it’s safe to say that my 89-year-old father hasn’t spent much time immersed in a technology-generated experiential life. No instant status updates or sharing of memes from the deck of a WWII destroyer in the Pacific. No existential worry on how to connect his existence with life: he worked hard every day, raised a large family (seven kids), spent several nights each week volunteering with service organizations, served as a trustee for his church, and regularly visited shut-ins. And, for all of that, was a strong presence in our lives. No need for him to purchase an experience to be a winner.
The Stoic Epictetus warned us to avoid giving over our minds to others, but instead to experience life on our own terms. Quaint advice these days, as many now live the totality of their lives merely as consumers and commodities, careening across the fluorescent-lighted landscape in a desperate search for the authentic experience to purchase, never realizing that they are the purchased. Our species has gone through billions of years of evolutionary struggle to reach this experiential moment … blasting alien invaders from a computer screen or hanging on a rock wall at the local mall.
Yesterday my day was spent planting strawberries, tilling potato beds, making kraut, feeding bottle lambs, and preparing a venison roast. It was not a planned gaming experience to evoke a sense of activity and purpose; it was genuinely experienced, unmediated by apps and digital connectivity. My days and nights engaging in this life may not offer the thrilling victories of a well-played Warcraft game. Yet I’d still maintain that a full day’s farm work, capped by a fine dinner with friends and a good book at evening’s end, is sufficient.