Consumed - A study of consumptive malaise


I think of this viz as a dystopian Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Harold had the power to create a world by simply drawing it.  In this viz, my consumptive malaise draws the world around me.  By sifting through the pile, I discover meaning and conflict in the mountain of banal objects that I interact with daily, and ponder why I use so many things.

The idea was simple - to log every “thing” that I used throughout the course of the day and visualize the “pile”.  Then, categorize and group all the things and see what story they tell.

I’m a lucky girl.  I get to work with Noah Salvaterra.  He’s ridiculous, which means I can say things like “I need a waterfall of sexy transactional data, pooling into lakes of ever increasing ROI based on risk mitigation,” and Noah makes it happen.  This time the request was, “I have a bunch of cartoon drawings of all crap that I use.  I want to build up a mountain of it over time”.  As usual, Noah made it so with his math Bedazzler.


Wants vs. Needs

Looking at the pile dissected by “Wants” vs. “Needs” requires a few assumptions to be made.  My needs were more than water, food and shelter.  To live in SF in 2017 and be in my line of work, I classified my phone and laptop as needs, as were standard furniture items like a desk and chair to work at.  Wants were more along the line of a Manhattan every day at 5 pm, or using 3 bowls throughout the day, instead of just having one and reusing it.  Most wants came out of cosmetics, and food items beyond just basic meals.  You may not agree with my categorizations of Wants vs. Needs, but in the end it is my viz, and I got to make the distinctions.  Only about 43% of the items I used were needs.  I wanted to dig in and understand the drivers of the wants.


Intersection of Female Specific items and Wants

The biggest shock in my consumption analysis was my categorization of 91% of the “Female Specific” being wants, compared to the “gender neutral” items which were almost a 50% split.  I use, what I would consider, a normal amount of makeup and hair products, and yet I categorized them mostly all as wants.  I would be hard pressed to give them up and feel like “Anya”, or even presentable outside my home.  Would most women consider mascara and lipstick a want or a need?  Why do I want them?  I am angered by the time suck and money drain these products represent, but I can’t imagine not using them. 

I had a conversation about labeling things female specific, and was asked; “Why I did not label things male specific?”  I asked, “What would some examples of that be?”.  “A jock strap and cigars” was the tentative response.   Well, I didn’t use those.




Cartoon Representations of All the Things vs. Standard Viz Mark Type

We are always representing things in bars and lines, so I wanted a chance to explore using representative objects to convey each item as a data point. I hired doodle artist Maeve Tan to create cartoon images, and found using a pile of cartoons a much more compelling representation of the story I wanted to tell.  Would the viz carry the same message if standard chart marks were used?  Where is the line in the sand between accuracy and speed of data consumption, vs better storytelling?  Is my desire to “tell a story” skewing the presentation of my consumption behavior?

Well, after all this, am I going to change my consumption behavior?

One of the most tedious parts of the project was going through the list of items and writing a description and where each was bought.  I discovered that I have either no real attachment, nor had not given much thought to the products I use day after day.  I bought them for the most part because they were easy to buy, on sale, part of a routine, an impulse buy, etc.

I had started a version of this viz a long time ago, when I was married and living in a nicer house, in a nicer neighborhood, and everything was from a hipster boutique or high end store.  As I looked through the current day version of my pile, I was a bit ashamed that it was all now from Costco and Target.  People will know I use Pantene!  But I was more shamed by how much I still bought and used.  It had taken a big life change to alter my pattern of consumption.  Yet faced with the question of what would I consume differently now, without an impetus, or conscious effort, I am likely continue to behave the same.  

Go ahead and be a voyeur. Then look at what’s in your pile.

PS. Most of us are voracious consumers, and if you are reading this, most likely of consumers of data visualizations as well.  Before you quickly swipe right of left, based on a casual glance at the aesthetics as a viz pops into your twitter feed, take a minute to have a read and maybe a think, or you may find your viz in Allan Walker’s idea to make a “tinder” type app for viz’s to satirize the velocity in which people consume data viz.