Pandemic Dread Has Me Instagram-Shopping Nonstop

Author Roxane Gay on how unnecessary purchases help her regain control in an uncertain climate

A small shopping cart and red computer mouse on pink background, symbolizing online shopping.
Photo: the_burtons/Getty Images

After nearly eight months of relative isolation, I have succumbed to Instagram ads which have, over the past while, become increasingly ludicrous. Or my inability to resist them has become increasingly ludicrous. It all started with an ad for a Lume Cube, a small LED light for better lighting on Zoom calls and during virtual events. It was a business expense, I decided. And it was very much needed because I was looking pallid, at best, on too many Zoom calls. When I started using the light, I felt gratified because everything looked so much better under the warm glow of a bright light. I now have two Lume Cubes and a couple ring lights. I’ve basically made myself a bootleg film set.

The nefarious algorithm quickly understood that I am a sucker for technology and all things miniature. I began to see ads for tiny projectors with alarming frequency. I already own a normal-sized projector, which I used the day it arrived and never used again. But it is a comfort, I suppose, knowing I could project something if I was so inclined. I have absolutely no need for another projector, let alone a tiny projector. But the ads depicted projectors that were all so tiny and adorable and such a technological marvel — to project a high-definition picture from the palm of my hand? That was my kind of sorcery.

So yes, I bought one. But the picture is not as crisp as it appears to be in the advertisement. There is quite a steep learning curve for a device so small. I have never been able to successfully watch anything using the tiny projector, but I have projected the interface onto the walls of my home and set up my Netflix account on it. I’ve also projected the image onto the ceiling, imagining what it would be like to watch a movie above me while lying in bed. I have fantasized, at length, about having an outdoor movie showing, stringing bright lights around my patio, erecting an artisanal movie screen (a white sheet hung between a tree and the garage), maybe serving some fancy snacks and popcorn. This is possible thanks to my tiny projector, and the possibility may well be comfort enough.

After all, there is no going to restaurants or movie theaters or bars or shows. There is no shopping in stores. There is very little social stimulation available to most of us, so virtual window-shopping has become inordinately satisfying. I now know about so many consumer goods I previously had no idea existed. There is a rowing machine that is basically the Peloton of rowing machines. There are beautiful home goods cast in concrete. There is a piece of exercise equipment, the Mirror, that is like a hologram of someone exercising with you? A personal trainer? I am not clear but it is very futuristic. There is something called the Gadget Discovery Club. It’s a subscription service, for gadgets! Party cans are resealable cans of mixed drinks. From what I can tell, they only have margaritas available right now, but there seems to be a lot of potential there. You don’t have to do the work of mixing a cocktail. It is literally a party in a can!

Every day my depression deepens, and shopping for ridiculous things, even simply browsing without buying ridiculous things, it helps. Or it numbs.

The thing about advertising is that it works. When you see an ad that hits your pleasure center in the right way, you click the link to “learn more,” and before you know it, you have convinced yourself you need something you had, until that moment, never heard of. Before the pandemic, I wasn’t a big shopper. Despite me not living an ascetic life, I had no particular yen for wandering through a mall or going to a store for much of anything. The only exception was Target and that’s self-explanatory. Now, though, I feel unexpectedly covetous. Maybe it’s that so much is beyond my control. The political climate is something of a nightmare and the future feels ominous no matter what happens. The pandemic rages on, uncontrolled and there is no end in sight. As the holidays loom, most of us will be abstaining or celebrating in drastically altered ways. The near future is an endless stretch of virtual events, social isolation, mask-wearing, and hand-washing until the skin threatens to crack. These are ridiculous complaints, I know, but I am struggling. Every day my depression deepens, and shopping for ridiculous things, even simply browsing without buying ridiculous things, helps. Or it numbs.

The Loupedeck is a video editing console. I neither shoot video nor know how to edit it but I gave the device serious consideration. I thought it might be nice to decorate my home with a Vestaboard, which is like an old train schedule board — the technical term is “split-flap display.” I could put different messages on the board every day, maybe something sweet and romantic for my wife, or, if we were having friends over, I could write a greeting to them and they would feel welcomed. It took a great deal of self-control to close that browser tab. It really did.

I also refrained from buying a vintage leather boxing heavy bag with matching gloves. I refrained from buying the Quiet Punch workout system because I was not convinced it was actually quiet. I passed on Japanese cast iron cookware, carbon steel kitchen knives, all kinds of face masks, weighted blankets, bullet planners, motivational planners, productivity notepads, and all kinds of notebooks. I already have so many notebooks, too many notebooks, really, but can a writer ever have too many? My bookshelves suggest yes, but my heart says no.

There have been far too many times when I did not resist temptation. I gave into it, and gladly. Did you know there are Post-it notepads that, as you use the notes, they begin to reveal intricate paper sculptures? They are lovely. I have one of a Japanese garden in Kyoto. I bought a charging valet for my devices. Valet makes it fancy, you see. I have several survival kits, emergency supply kits, and a medic kit because I love intricate first aid kits with useful supplies that I will probably never use. But should calamity strike, I will be ready, no matter what room I am in. I will be able to help anyone in need. For once I will feel useful.

It’s amazing how much useless stuff there is in this world and how easily we can convince ourselves that we need it.

The DIY Watch Club is not really a club, but you can buy watchmaking kits from them. I thought it might be a fun way to fill an afternoon, assembling a watch. I would feel like a craftsperson, skilled, competent. I haven’t finished building a watch yet, but that option is available to me. Someday, soon, I will make a watch I will likely never wear because I don’t enjoy wearing watches. They make me feel claustrophobic. Alas.

It’s amazing how much useless stuff there is in this world and how easily we can convince ourselves that we need it. Actually, it’s disheartening. It’s a problem. There is too much stuff in the world and so much of it is overpriced and unnecessary and contributing to the planet’s demise. On better days, I try to divest myself of being acquisitive, but not every day is a better day.

I do not camp, but I would love a fire-starting kit just in case I need to light a fire somewhere for some reason. Or maybe I need a backpack that transforms into a chair or a tripod desk for my laptop even though I have a perfectly functional four-legged desk. Or maybe I need a pocket tripod for those times when I want to be like a professional photographer and get the perfect shot wherever I am. There is, in fact, a vigorous market for professional-grade photo and video equipment — a stabilizer so you can film tracking shots, backdrops for photo shoots, special lenses, and reflecting discs.

Do I need a device with which I can make plant-based milk even though it sounds pretty unappetizing? Probably! If I wanted to garden, I could buy a seed sheet, place it on some soil, add water, wait and see. I could also get a vertical garden wall to feel like I am living in Star Trek: Voyager. If you want to save the planet, you can buy premium bamboo toilet paper, though I am not entirely clear on how making toilet paper from one kind of tree instead of another benefits the earth. If you want to step up your quotidian household goods game, you can get fancy power cords and surge protectors. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery and as such there is a kit available if you’re feeling capable.

There is a brisk market for caddies — a bedside caddy to store your remotes and books and other nighttime paraphernalia, a sink caddy to help you store all the things you want to include in your sink, and a travel caddy for your car to keep all of the vehicular detritus that accumulates in your glove compartment. If you enjoy snacks with an international flair, you can avail yourself of a Japanese snack subscription. For your hands, buffalo hide work gloves. For your porch, a customizable doormat. Or you can get a raised gaming platform, magnetic strip lights, sparkly solar lights, a Korean barbecue kit, a tool for drawing a perfect circle, a scanner to identify colors, a pillow to help with better sleep and keeping up your sex drive, and I could go on, endlessly.

If you have the means, nearly everything is available to you by way of Instagram ads. You can buy things you don’t really need, and when each purchase arrives, there is a momentary rush of pleasure as you open the box and hold what you told yourself you simply had to have, in the palm of your hands. Just as quickly, that rush fades and you are holding onto something you don’t need and don’t really want. The numbness wears off and you are left feeling everything.

I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. If you clap, I clap back. Books.: Ayiti, Untamed State, Bad Feminist. Difficult Women, World of Wakanda 1–5, Hunger.

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