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New forms of consumption enhance digital life

LIN XIAOSHAN | 2021-09-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A restaurant at Shanghai New World City does a live webcast amid a “cloud shopping” campaign launched by the shopping mall to boost consumption. Photo: CFP 

Almost all great social changes will ultimately be reflected in each individual’s daily consumption life. Based on the development of consumer society, the evolution of everyday consumption is also an important force driving social changes. 

The perspective of consumption evolution will facilitate the observation of changes in contemporary Chinese society. In other words, understanding mechanisms behind the evolution of consumption is essential to making sense of contemporary China. 
In recent years, however, the rapid development of daily consumption life has far outpaced related academic research. Particularly, the new round of technological revolution and industrial reforms have spawned new forms, or types, of consumption, typified by online shopping, mobile payments, and online-offline integration. As a result, the traditional consumption landscape has been revolutionized, with increasing application scenarios created. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, new forms of consumption have functioned as an accelerator of economic recovery and a new driver of growth. 
This slew of new changes calls for deeper academic studies, thus directing new consumption models towards a healthier development path and deepening people’s understanding of the increasingly digital human life. 
Impact of new technologies
Technology is inseparable from social change, and new technologies are reshaping our consumption life. The thriving of new forms of consumption results exactly from the extensive application of new digital technologies like big data, block chains, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence, and from the popularization of new business models led by the platform economy and sharing economy. 
Generally, new forms of consumption fall into four categories. The first is the “internet plus service” model, such as online education, online health services, online entertainment, and online fitness. The second category is marked by the platform economy and sharing economy, encompassing takeout delivery, online car-hailing, instant delivery, and shared accommodation. The third category, characterized by contactless consumption, includes smart supermarkets, smart stores, and smart restaurants. In the fourth category, online-offline integration is predominant, featuring live commerce and “cloud shopping.”  
Certainly, “new consumption” is not a mature concept now. With the rapid development of digital technologies, its business forms and models will continue to change. 
Since COVID-19 broke out, new types of consumption have played a significant role in meeting residents’ living needs, recovering domestic consumption, and sustaining economic growth. However, they emerged earlier than the epidemic. 
In fact, new forms of consumption had been around from the beginning of the internet age. In periodicals dating to a dozen years ago, there are many articles discussing new forms of consumption such as online shopping. 
Indeed, the rise of the internet society, on one hand, laid a solid physical foundation for the boom of new consumption models. On the other hand, it nurtured lots of “qualified” consumers for the development of new forms of consumption, making full technological and social preparations for the transition from traditional to new consumption. 
Meanwhile, expanding digital technologies and the emerging platform economy not only created new scenarios for production and consumption, but also ushered in a fresh digital era for human society, directly fueling the boom of new types of consumption. 
Digitalization is different from informatization. It is a more advanced stage of information technology development and a core element of the digital economy. In recent years, digital transformation has extended from the digital economy to people’s daily life and government affairs. It has effectively enhanced the operational efficiency of the whole economic society while dramatically changing the way people think and reconstructing the living world. 
Despite myriad new business forms and models, they share the premise of the existence of the internet and digital technologies. Digitalization is a basic attribute of new types of consumption, and a fundamental driver to empower new consumption models. These forms of consumption can be called new because they boast common features of digitalization, differ from traditional offline contact consumption, and foster new consumer ideas, models, tools, and relations. 
Although there are many weak links in the process of digitalization, it will unavoidably repaint the picture of consumption as human society is heading towards digital transformation in its entirety. 
Changes to life
Carrying the genes of digitalization, new types of consumption cover every facet of social life. From early online shopping to the present shopping via live-streaming, from traditional wholesale and retail to cloud-based digital commerce among enterprises, application scenarios created by the new generation of digital technologies have extended from e-commerce to learning, work, and life in a sweeping manner. 
There is e-government, exemplified by the “one visit at most” reform launched in south China’s Zhejiang Province; digital learning such as “internet plus education,” “internet plus vocational training,” and knowledge sharing platforms and products; digital travel (online car-hailing, real-time bus supervision, and code scanning to take subways); digital cultural tourism (digital libraries and digital culture centers), and digital healthcare (online hospitals, “internet plus” health inquiry, and smart healthcare apps for the elderly).
The flourishing of these new business forms and models have expedited the deep integration of digital technologies and economic society on a broader level, profoundly altering consumption habits and notions of urban and rural residents, and advancing the digital transformation of daily life. 
Digital transformation is not merely the backdrop against which new types of consumption develop. It is also the fundamental technological logic running through the transition from traditional to new consumption. 
On this basis, changes to daily life brought on by new forms of consumption largely differ from previous changes in consumption life. They are not simply increases in the amount of consumption or upgrades of consumption quality in the general sense. Instead, consumption life has been radically and systematically reformed, involving such dimensions as consumption systems, patterns, concepts, tools, and relations. 
In his 1995 book Being Digital, American computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte generalized four characteristics for being digital: decentralization of power, globalization, the pursuit of harmony, and empowerment; these characteristics also indicate revolutionary changes contained in new types of consumption. 
For example, decentralization of power leads to more equal relations in consumption; globalization enlarges the space for consumption and shapes more diverse patterns of consumption; the pursuit of harmony steers consumption philosophies towards greenness and sharing; and empowerment significantly improves life opportunities for consumers through technological empowerment. Therefore, we cannot solely interpret the enhanced digital life as a result of new consumption models through the lens of general consumption upgrades.
Revolutionary nature
Changes in the current consumption sector can be fairly described as a new revolution of consumption. They not only represent a continuation of the first consumer revolution in China, which arguably spanned from the reform and opening up in 1978 to around 2010, but are also new, systematic changes to the life of consumption in the digital age. 
The new consumer revolution gives everyday life four layers of meaning of a digital revolution. From the perspective of consumers, the new revolution has made consumers more autonomous. From offline to online, digital consumers have become the main body of consumption. 
Regarding tools for consumption, if physical stores, shopping malls, and credit cards were major tools for consumption in the first consumer revolution, then apps, live-streaming videos, mobile payments, and “internet plus services” that are closely bonded with digital technologies are primarily instrumental to new consumption. 
From the perspective of consumer culture, apart from giving rise to more diverse consumption values, new forms of consumption are also faced with the all-around penetration of online consumerism and conspicuous scenario orientation, as more and more scenario-based consumption and consumption-oriented scenarios arise. 
Institutionally, with digital revolution as a main step for the national campaign of deepening reform, providing new services for digital life has become a crucial institutional arrangement for consumption. For example, in July 2020, Zhejiang Province issued opinions on implementing the plan to provide new services for digital life. In July 2021, Shanghai also rolled out an action plan to promote digital transformation of life in the metropolis and build a high-quality digital life during the period from 2021 to 2023. These moves have substantively promoted digital transformation of daily life. 
The arrival of the digital era is irresistible. New types of consumption arising from digital technologies will gradually constitute the main trend of consumer life. Without any doubt, new consumption models have provided people more choices in their pursuit of a better life. 
Particularly during the COVID-19 epidemic when traditional offline consumption was seriously impacted, new forms of consumption played an irreplaceable role, effectively guaranteeing the consumption life of urban and rural residents. 
Moreover, with a unique digital advantage, new types of consumption have become a new growth point for the national economy, carrying more weight in the building of a new development paradigm that aims to smooth domestic circulation and let the domestic and international markets reinforce each other. 
Nonetheless, in a modern society that harbors mounting risks, the fragility of digital life has also presented itself. Once people rely too heavily on digital technologies, risks will escalate in daily life, too. It is not only a matter of consumer privacy and consumption safety. People’s identity and institutional systems associated with consumption will also be at stake, which necessitates prudential countermeasures. 
Lin Xiaoshan is a professor of sociology from Zhejiang Institute of Administration. 
Edited  by CHEN MIRONG