eCommerce Tricks of Transformation—Part 4

The Next-Day Manifestation

Artwork created in collaboration with Tim Straver.

In this series about eCommerce and its tricks, I assess our relationship with online transactions and their magical effects on our behaviors.

As eCommerce works its magic on us, our need for instant gratification or manifestation is heightened.

Ad engines are working hard to maximise your consumer value with relevant, targeted advertising across social media. Trends such as ‘I want it, I got it’ often set to the lyrics of Ariana Grande’s song ‘7 Rings’, actively promote this instant manifestation and ability to receive items what appears to be instantaneously.

In trick 4, The Next-Day Manifestation, I explore pairing the spiritual allure of manifesting ideology with labor-masking technology like next-day delivery.

Trick 4

The Next-Day Manifestation

Fundamental to the art of magic is the materialization of objects out of the immaterial. Our fascination with producing things at will recently make a cultural comeback through the resurgence of "manifesting." Google searches for "manifesting" skyrocketed 669% from March to mid-July 2020 and have continued to trend upward as of writing. The hashtag #manifestation currently has more than 27 billion views on TikTok and 8.5 million posts on Instagram.

Source: Interest over time on the search team “manifesting.”

Today, "manifesting" is part of the thriving "mystical and psychic services industry," with a market size of $2.2 billion. High-profile gurus and entrepreneurs offer a wide range of manifesting goods and services, including apps, consulting hours, and online courses.

Source: Statista. Market size of the psychic services industry in the US (in a million U.S. dollars)

Rooted in the New Age's pseudoscientific Law of Attraction, "manifesting," as a belief, promises human agency against the ongoing talks of despair and uncertainty. In the 19th century, means of manifestation mainly related to the spiritual practices of vision boarding, dream journaling, or positive affirmation. Manifesting in the age of online commerce has found a modern accomplice: same-, next-, or two-day delivery. Like picking a coin from thin air, fast delivery gives consumers the magician's ability to manifest their desires in a matter of days, hours, or even minutes.

In February 2005, Amazon Prime launched its "all-you-can-eat express shipping" program, providing subscribers with unlimited two-day deliveries. Since then, delivery times have been reduced to less than a day and even same-day delivery in some areas. Along this trend are similar “instant manifestation” developments, such as Getir's on-demand delivery in 2015, ASOS Instant in 2017, and Gorillas, a 10-minute grocery delivery service valued at $3.1 billion in 2020. In just under two decades, accelerated by the pandemic, our world has become ever more reliant on express shipping: according to Shopify, 60% of global consumers expect same-, next-, or two-day delivery, while Statista forecasts same-day-delivery market size to reach 26.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2027.

This infatuation with—and arguably addiction to—instant manifestation brings forward two forms of social depreciation. First is the removal of human deliberation, and second is labor abstraction. To understand how instant manifestation wanes deliberation, let's take a page out of the manifestation playbook and imagine:

Imagine your name is Carla. You are 19 years old, living in a dorm with your friends, and studying Psychology. You care about the environment, and you shop deliberately. In the past few days, you noticed the same patterned green dress called Hockney showing up all over your TikTok and Instagram. Kendall Jenner wears it. Your followed arts-and-craft creator wears it. Your cousin wears it. You don’t think you need it.

On a night out, while waiting in the Burger King line, you saw an ad from ASOS featuring the Hockney. “I have ASOS Instant. I can have this delivered for free tomorrow!” you thought. You bought the dress. That night, you went out, had fun, and forgot about the purchase. The next morning, you woke to a knock on your door. "Package for Carla," said the delivery courier. You opened the package to reveal the Hockney dress you saw on the internet. The same dress you had just seen the day before online. It was now in front of you. Feeling half amazed and half guilty, you were nonetheless excited to put it on.

Congratulations, Carla. You manifested.

This story of Carla is based on a true conversation I had with Hannah, a Psychology student. In her story, instant commerce and manifestation offer both the functional benefit of a timely acquisition and the emotional thrill of manifesting, all while making buying decisions a reflex.

"I usually do research before I purchase anything, and I rarely buy new items. Ever since I signed up for ASOS Instant last Christmas, I have become a bit addicted to shopping. There is something special about the convenience and the magic of it all. I'm still amazed every time something arrives to me the next day. I think I'm going to cancel it this year."

— Hannah, a research participant.

While the emotional reward of next-day delivery feels magical, the human terms and conditions bound to its spell are anything but. This irony brings up discussions about the labor behind manifesting magic.

After the local newspaper where she reported closed, Emily Guendelsberger—the author of On the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane—took a job at an Amazon fulfillment center. In her book, Emily shares that Amazon required her to work nights, weekends, holidays, and overtime on "immediate demand" without notice. She chronicles stories of families, husbands, and wives whose shifts tail one another’s, leaving them with seconds to pass each other on a Monday night.

The just-in-time economy requires an all-the-time labor force. For this reason, things don't just manifest. More often than not, they are delivered at human costs. Costs that are conveniently abstracted through "human-centered" user interfaces and swallowed in magical narratives. This asymmetrical relationship between those who buy magic and those who deliver it underpins what Grafton Tanner—author of The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia—described as the userverse.

Userverse is a "surrogate world" that gives its users a sense of “unchallenged mastery” over, and at the expense of, others. It is a pretense where users "can enjoy being served while reassuring themselves… that no one is being harmed as if their feeling of domination just flows naturally from the technology itself and not the social relations it is masking."

In pairing the spiritual allure of manifesting ideology with technology-masqueraded human labor, modern commerce further dissociates the middle class from the working class. It deepens our reliance on "Amazon-fulfilled" goods for self-fulfillment.


eCommerce Tricks of Transformation discusses five magic tricks that eCommerce uses to capture our attention and participation:

Trick 1: The Mysterious Hat of Algorithm ->
Along the way of mirroring and giving us "For You" content, algorithmic commerce tends towards a flattening of culture, conflating followings with fandom, casting prediction as precision, and, to a growing extent, removing human agency.

Trick 2: The Telepathic Trick of TeleCommerce ->
TeleCommerce enables consumers to enter someone else's space and purchase their way into altering their reality. While gaining status and control through shopping isn't new, the way we financially reward the broadcast of everything is worthy of further scrutiny and investigation.

Trick 3: The Magician’s Assistant ->
eCommerce and its assistants (influencers and creators) create an ecosystem where buyers can be entertained while buying into the promises of goods and the influencing career. This system can sometimes reduce creativity and community to the logic of virality and monetization.

Trick 4: The Next-Day Manifestation
In pairing the spiritual allure of manifesting ideology with labor-masking technology like next-day delivery, modern commerce dissociates the middle class from the working class and deepens our reliance on "Amazon-fulfilled" goods for self-fulfillment.

Coming up next

Trick 5: The Vanishing Waste of eCommerce ->

While seemingly a magical proposition, products and services that put our overconsumption waste out of sight can overlook an important truth: waste is waste, regardless of smell or visibility. If we do not learn to confront our waste, we will not learn to stop magically wasting.

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Việt Hoàng, Strategy Director