Thursday, May 5, 2011

Starbucks and McDonald's (8 Jan 2008)

Starbucks was prominent in the news yesterday. Founder Howard Schultz has been called back into action in an effort to reverse the coffee chain's slide into mediocrity.

[Schultz] said moves to automate coffee making in the interests of efficiency had damaged the “romance and theatre” of a visit to the stores. Starbucks shares have fallen 48 per cent over the past 12 months. They rebounded 8 per cent in after-hours trading on Monday.
Mr Schultz said his agenda would include slowing the pace of new store openings in the US and closing under-performing locations, and redeploying capital originally assigned to the US to increasing the profitability of its overseas operations.

Ah, yes. I'm sure you fondly remember as I do how romantic it was to stand around in the Starbucks theater waiting for someone to hand you your coffee. What high drama there was in a cranky espresso puller getting burned by hot milk.

It seems that Starbucks' ubiquity has bred indifference to the brand, and its own success has undermined the mystique it once had as purveyor of some rare, special elixir known as a "latte." Now just about everyone knows what a latte is, and you'll even be able to get them at McDonald's, as this entertaining WSJ story details. Though Starbucks may have originally conceived of itself as the opposite of McDonald's, it always seemed natural that they would either mimic each other's identity or actually combine, like the women in Persona slowly shading into one another. I used to argue that instead of "selling hot, brown liquid masquerading as coffee" (as a ex-Starbucks exec called McDonald's coffee), McDonald's should be licensing Starbucks coffee and selling it to people who have come to want the serious gourmet shit. (But then I typically make the mistake of thinking that Starbucks primarily sells coffee as opposed to "upscale coffee drinks" -- I don't drink anything but black coffee, and I forget that most people associate Starbucks with the elaborate froufrou drinks and don't really care one way or the other about good coffee as long as there is lots of sugar and steamed milk.) Both companies are also primarily brands that communicate a certain uniformity of standards. It's not ideal but you know what you are getting when you roll into McDonald's after pulling off I-80 somewhere in Nebraska.

It seemed as though the companies could reinforce each other's brand equity; in a sense they already do. By giving the language of brands such powerful and universal symbols, it validates the whole phenomenon. But I hadn't expected them to become direct competitors, for, as the article points out, they want to supply different things to achieve the goal of vending high-margin beverages: McDonald's uses cheap, high-calorie food; Starbucks, ersatz ambiance and "theater." But ultimately, Starbucks abandoned that method and sought more and more store traffic. Schultz's return promises a reversal of that trend.

But the WSJ article offered other surprises. For one, McDonald's may also seek to provide a music downloading service at some of its locations. What more evidence does one need that music has been thoroughly commodified, that you'd buy some songs alongside a Big Mac? But who wants to stand in a McDonald's browsing for music? It's not like Starbucks, which seeks to sell its (now faded) ambiance as an enhancement to the music sold. If there's any justice, the first song McDonald's will sell will be the Gang of Four's immortal "Cheeseburger."

I also found this interesting:
Mr. Schultz has said that new competition actually helps Starbucks by expanding the specialty-coffee category. "Those consumers over time are going to trade up," he told investors in November. "They're going to trade up because they are not going to be satisfied with the commoditized experience or the flavor." He has emphasized that Starbucks's baristas, who are instructed to memorize customers' drink orders and make genuine conversation with patrons, will continue to set the chain apart.
Not only is it ripe for Schultz to argue that the Starbucks experience is not commoditized, but he goes on to offer the fact that workers are ordered to make "genuine" conversation as evidence. This may be stupid of me to ask, but when you force people to talk, can the resulting conversation really be considered genuine?

Boredom as character flaw (7 Jan 2008)

This article from Scientific American suggests something that I've often suspected, that boredom is less a matter of dull circumstances than of unimaginative people.
a new generation of scientists is grappling with the psychological underpinnings of this most tedious of human emotions—and they have found that it is more complicated than is commonly known. Researchers say that boredom is not a unified concept but rather comes in several flavors. Level of attention, an aspect of conscious awareness, plays an important role in boredom, such that improving a person’s ability to focus may therefore decrease ennui. Emotional factors can also contribute to boredom. People who are inept at understanding their feelings and those who become sucked in and distracted by their moods are more easily bored, for example.
In the past, I've argued that consumerism as a system induces people to become more prone to boredom by encouraging them to feel entitled to convenience and hence exist in a state of perpetual impatience, which is quite like boredom. People come to regard their own experience as disposable, something to be hurried through. At the time, I didn't know about the Boredom Proneness Scale, developed by two psychologists, or what its application has found in terms of whether people are getting more or less bored as society becomes more saturated with commodified culture. But the researchers who created the scale have identified two main characteristics of those easily bored that fit well with my theory: Boredom stems, in their account, from a need for novelty and an inability to generate their own stimulation: In other words, they have become passive consumers who wait to be entertained by some new external stimulus as rapidly as possible. These in turn derive from a short attention span. The question then is whether consuming culture designed for people with short attention spans can actually produce a short attention span. Or is A.D.D. not something our environment has inflicted on us.

This point of view gives a new cast to a meme that already sounds creepy and ominous -- the onset of the "attention economy." It feels as though we have less and less attention to give, as our surroundings become hypermediated, and worse, the scarcity of attention reinforces itself. Attention ceases to be a renewable resource.

Price incentives and peer production (4 Jan 2008)

This recent post by Nicolas Carr, about Amazon's vaguely creepy "Askville" campaign -- a World of Warcraft-like scheme in which consumers win virtual money for use in Amazon's virtual world by supplying real world tips and facts -- offers another way to explain the point I was fumbling toward in the previous post. Carr, a techno-skeptic who generally sees nothing especially liberating about the internet, details a long-running debate he has had with Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, who touts the internet's transformational possibilities.
In July of 2006, I entered into a quasi-wager with Yochai "Wealth of Networks" Benkler about the ultimate economic structure of the most popular social media sites. I predicted that the dominant sites would pay for their content - that they would, in Benkler's terms, be "price-incentivized systems." Benkler predicted that the sites would be pure "peer-production processes" existing outside "the price system."
So what happens if people get paid with virtual gold: Is that price-incentivized or not? I would argue that it is. If you're working for gold, whether real or fake, you're putting a price on your labor. I mean, if you take beads in trade for something of value, then the beads are money, right? But of course I'm biased, being a participant in the wager. Maybe Benkler would argue that fake gold is more like a token of esteem or a gift of the heart than like a wage.
One thing's for sure, anyway: If you can pay your workers with virtual money, you've got a helluva labor strategy.
Yesterday I was trying to make the case that we are conditioned to be price-incentivized, and this makes it hard for us to process culture that's not assimilable to that logic; we tend to import market thinking to our manner of appreciating culture, even when the cultural is not distributed through a market, or produced with profit incentives in mind. Carr seems to consistently argue that non-financial incentives are illusionary, utopian, or really monetary motives in disguise, and I'll admit that this sort of cynicism rings true to me. But then I wonder whether if that case holds true only for firms and doesn't necessary apply to individuals, who are more flexible in their motives, and can win in other ways than registering profits. People clearly are willing to work at public tasks not for money but for inclusion, recognition, and the sheer pleasure of social participation. It may be that people like integrating themselves into networks not necessarily with a view to any definite advantage, but for its own sake, out of a species-driven urge toward gregariousness. Being a part of a network for its own sake is at least as plausible as accumulating money for its own sake.

Anyway, Carr is mainly concerned with production: Can you extract quality without paying for it through the sheer size of a network? This is sort of a belief that a million monkeys gleefully and spontaneously typing online will ultimately produce Hamlet, even if each monkey only contributes a word. Yesterday I was wondering about consumption, and whether we need price incentives to motivate us to consume, to cue us to the value of what we might consume and to give us a framework for manufacturing desires. Or could some networked system of peer recommendation replace prices as cues to what culture is valuable? Also, will we be able to conjure limits for ourselves in the absence of cultural scarcity, a condition that was created by the transformation of cultural activity into a product. In other words, is the internet decommodifying artistic production, leading to new (or a return to old) ways to experience cultural phenomena?

Cultural consumption at the margins (3 Jan 2008)

Because the manner in which media is distributed these days has so changed the way I experience it and even conceive desires about it, I wanted to refresh my memory on Marxist literary theory, which strongly emphasizes the network of social relations within which a work exists. (You can already see this has done wonders for my prose style.) It seems that, for example, the amount of music available for free (if you are willing to take it) makes it impossible to listen to it in the same way. This reminded me of Terry Eagleton's Marxism and Literary Criticism where he attributes to Marx the idea that "capitalist society, with its predominance of quantity over quality, its conversion of all social products to market commodities, its philistine soullessness, is inimical to art." One pessimistic way of applying this idea: Accustomed as we are to attach a price to cultural product, the fact that it's suddenly (for all intents and purposes) free encourages a massive and rapid accumulation, which serves to reinforce the status of the art as product rather than experience. We become buried under the surfeit, doomed to process the material rather than enjoy it -- forced to focus on consuming our way through it rather than actually listening to it, watching it, reading it, whatever the case may be.

In other words, we may be so ideologically conditioned to regard culture as a priced product that we can't understand it or value it outside of that context, even as technological change is reducing the relevance of price to cultural experience. The underpinning assumption is that the social context that produces cultural objects also produces at the same time (or dialectically, if you prefer, with each altering the development of the other) the subjects fit for such objects -- mass culture, for instance, is presumed to yield a certain sort of person fit to be one of the masses, with lowest-common-denominator tastes and untroubled by disposability. So we experience "free" with a kind of panic, either the culture is becoming worthless or we are in the midst of such a bargain that we need to consume as much as we can to behave rationally within that market. But the outcome -- collections of music, for example, that run into the thousands of albums -- is anything but rational. Spending hours devouring clips on YouTube of commercials you remember from childhood is not especially rational either. Trying to read 17 newspapers a day, because you can, because they all shed a slightly different light, is not entirely rational despite being technically feasible with no extra financial costs at the margin.

It's hard to escape the pressure that marginal thinking puts on cultural consumption -- the idea that if you can download one song for free and 1,000 songs for free at the same expense, you may as well get the thousand, quality concerns be damned -- precisely because capitalism has weaned us to view culture as something to consume. Eagleton, assaying the Marxist position on artists' commitment to progressive or revolutionary attitudes, offers this bleak comment. Comparing postwar art to that inspired by the fascist crisis, he writes:
There are less "extreme" phases of bourgeois society in which art relegates itself to minor status, becomes trivial and emasculated, because the sterile ideologies it springs from yield no nourishment -- are unable to make significant connections or offer adequate discourses. In such an era, the need for explicitly revolutionary art again becomes pressing. It is a question to be seriously considered whether we are not ourselves living in such a time.

The ideology by which we see art as commodity (which has innumerable facets -- reflected not just in the digital files vended online, but in the breathless coverage of Christie's and Sotheby's art auctions, the manufacture of promotional materials and solicitation of reviews, the reporting of sales figures and the equivalence of profit with popularity and popularity with quality, and so on) seems to be one of those sterilizing ideologies that yield no nourishment, but optimists might argue that the wide, cheap distribution and interactive nature of the internet are reshaping that ideology by revolutionizing forms and media themselves, which inevitably reshapes the consumers of such forms and media. This view verges on "crude technologism" -- the idea that technology automatically (and undialectically) produces new social conditions. But if such a revolution is happening, it leaves a certain generation (mine) especially strung between ideological configurations -- open to new developments but conditioned by old practices. And it's not clear that this shift won't yield art (and art appreciators) that's even more philistine -- leading to more quantity over quality, not just for ideological stragglers and strandees but for those fully formed within the internet era. The interactivity and superfluity of culture encourages us not to grapple with it as it is but to alter it to suit our prejudices and convenience. We can, say, only engage with culture at the level of relaxation -- listen to smooth jazz and watch TV shows that spoon-feed us the feelings we're supposed to have. Or we can only pay attention to culture to the degree that it seems to be paying attention to us -- read only the comments people leave for us or that are about us on social networks.

But those tendencies will be mixed with a kind of indifference to regarding culture economically, as protected property. This indifference to prices, ownership, copyrights, etc., will inevitably rise to a new way of experiencing culture. A utopian prognosis would be something that builds in part on the premise of individuals mashing up digital content and sharing it to amuse friends and in part on the inconsequentiality of what's already made -- everything may come to be seen as raw material for some further production and consumption itself will seem boring. The lack of cultural scarcity will render a coveting, consumerist approach pointless. But another alternative would be the sort of thing Brave New World suggests, where the ocean of interconnected cultural material becomes a network of control.