The Notions+

The Notions+ “Our Curious Culture of Consumption” is an iPad app that brings together a series of materials about the ideas of consuming and being consumed. Co-publishers Heather McKenzie and Elaine Symanski curate photographs, illustrations, videos, a song, a poem, and mostly essays. Some contributions are reflective, some humorous, and some prescriptive.

“Our Curious Culture of Consumption” is divided into five sections: rituals and habits, idols and entertainment, choice and circumstance, stuff and consequences, and travails and truth. Each section then consists of a couple contributions that relate thematically. The idols section, for example, offers essays on the ideas of celebrity, technology and spectacle, and pornography off and online.

Essays cover a range of styles, voices, and topics. Each is well written for the most part, though some are more engaging than others. A few offer unique insights, such as one about gun ownership. Others appear less insightful, such as the one pointing out that reality television is scripted or that too many choices about Cheerios and cable television plague us. Because of the variety among them, each essay is best taken on its own terms. They feel too disconnected when taken together.

Essays make up most of the contributions, but the two videos struck me as the strongest pieces within this app because each one tells an engaging story. One video juxtaposes two women’s cancer experiences — one a survivor and one just undergoing treatment. The other video features a man who relearned how to swim after being paralyzed in a motorcycle accident; he then goes on to compete in triathlons. I would have liked to hear more about them.

The app offers more graphic continuity than content continuity. It sets up our interactive experience as a “drive,” and each main section features a picture of a red car with a car sound effect at its start. The bold red graphics and type also help unify the experience.

The “user as driver” metaphor extends no further, though. We engage the content through swiping and tapping. The app allows easy access to different sections through tapping once and scrolling the options, though moving through the sections in order works fine, too.

Each section is designed to complement the content visually. Sometimes, the cohesion just works as in the essay titled “Pinning,” which looks like a Pinterest board with an essay squeezed in the middle.

I read through the app in landscape mode, with the tablet propped on a stand, and I was rather surprised when twice the app told me to rotate the tablet to engage the content. The essay “Pills Are Operating America” begins with a full-body image of a man with plus signs arranged on him. Tapping each plus sign reveals information about the most prescribed pills, their purposes, and their side effects. The vertical orientation of the man’s picture sort of explains the required orientation, but why not find a way to scale the image so that it flows horizontally with the other sections? The second essay to require the screen rotation, “Nature is an Elixir for the Overspent,” offers no clear rationale for why the switch.

Scrolling through to read the content provides most of the interactivity in this app, but so does scrolling through to get to that content. While highly structured and organized, the app could do with fewer intertitle screens. The screens offer structure, but not much by way of content. The best screens do both.

“Our Curious Culture of Consumption” reads like a magazine in its dedication to the theme of consumption. The form allows the inclusion of multiple perspectives, and the section designs complement that approach. Each contributor gets a showcase for his or her own work.

I explore these apps hoping to engage a story and to learn something, though neither happened in this case. But still, the “Our Curious Culture of Consumption” app works for what it is doing and does raise some intriguing points about its topic.

For more information, visit or download the app on iTunes.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.