In late 1994, when I began working at the Washington Monthly, my new boss, Charlie Peters, asked that I write a piece on home shopping channels and how they preyed on lonely, mostly female consumers. On the one hand, it was a strange assignment for me, given that I had just returned from two and a half years in South Africa. Those were largely pre-internet days, so among the many aspects of America from which I'd been exiled was its consumer culture. And now, working eighty-hour weeks at the Monthly, I wasn't watching much TV. On the other hand, Charlie clearly thought it was a natural fit for one of the magazine's few female editors to date. Part of me knew and resented that. But as soon as I started tuning in, I could see that he was on to something.
Both the Home Shopping Network (HSN) and its rival QVC had started in the 1980s, a decade in which culture, along with politics, seemed to re-form around the rich. Inequality was rising. So was class consciousness. But the ethos of the era was that the rich were to be venerated, and if possible aped, but never resented. That played out very clearly on U.S. television. On one channel you could watch Dallas or Dynasty, shows that elevated the lives of fictional American oil tycoons. On another you could buy cheap imitations of the diamonds they wore.
While reporting the piece, I watched the latter channels late into the night. (The later the hour, the more acute the vulnerability and loneliness on display.) I listened to the shaky voices of the women who ostensibly called in to talk about their purchases, but who mostly just seemed to want to talk, and the unctuous voices of hosts urging them toward greater spending or congratulating them on the items they'd bought. Along with material goods, as I argued in the resulting article, HSN and QVC sold the illusion of community to people isolated in front of their screens: "Home shopping channels prey on the lonely, the alienated," I wrote: "by offering a haven, then charging admission."
Looking back, my claim that "the marriage of technology and commerce will make consuming ever more convenient," and Americans more vulnerable, has been borne out. In June 1995, Amazon wasn't yet a year old; technology and commerce had barely begun to date. Nearly twenty-five years later, consumption is very nearly instantaneous, and consumer debt, then just over $1 trillion, is now over $4 trillion. (QVC bought HSN in 2017, after years of losing market share to...