Showing posts with label accelerated consumption. Show all posts
Showing posts with label accelerated consumption. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pleasures of Scoreboard (9 Dec 2010)

This Wired article about "retail hackers" -- people who try to turn companies' price discrimination techniques against them -- offers this useful distinction:
According to Donald Lichtenstein, a professor of marketing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, super-couponers have learned to ignore “acquisition utility,” the pleasure and value one obtains from, say, a box of cereal. Instead, they peg their shopping decisions to “transaction utility,” the difference between what they’re getting the cereal for and what they think the cereal is supposed to cost. In other words, super-couponers don’t perceive a grocery item as food, at least not until they exit the store and serve it for breakfast. On the shelf and in the cart, the super-couponer evaluates products with the cold-eyed calculus of a trader.
This is another way of saying that these people are after exchange value rather than use value -- they are beyond use value, as Baudrillard liked to say. Or in other words, the utility they are after is what radio host Jim Rome and his devotees used to call scoreboard -- the sheer irrefutable fact of winning, of beating someone else. This old column of mine about "thrift-store gentry" discusses the idea in terms of obsessed thrift-store shopping -- I defined scoreboard there as "an ethical Occam's razor, a pitiless pragmatism that relentlessly transforms all situations into zero-sum clashes with clear winners and losers." My conclusion was that "beating the system" by scoring retail triumphs was not really beating the system but reinforcing it. You're still shopping and reckoning your identity in terms of acquiring stuff.

I think that we are encouraged to fall back onto such pleasures as scoreboard in shopping for a number of reasons. First, competitive consumption nicely mirrors the competitive aspects of production in capitalism, making that ideology holistic and naturalizing the idea of a zero-sum society -- that there should be winners and losers in the great game of making and distributing useful things. Of course, cooperation with others would be an illusion and off course there should naturally be vast inequality.

Also scoreboard is compensation for discovering that use value is a mirage, an alibi. Or to put that differently, the pleasures of zero-sum scoreboard are infinite, whereas our organic human needs are quite limited. Satisfaction is anathema to both our growth-oriented economy and our sense of limitless self-potential, of endlessly expanding identity, so fixating on exchanges for their own sake as the source of new pleasures makes sense. That is an inexhaustible well.

The problem with this -- the reason retail hackers seem more crazy than enviable -- is that focus on the pleasures of exchange blocks our access to the pleasures of the things acquired. We don't want to accept that use value isn't more real than exchange value. So we believe that the hackers don't really taste the cereal, in a way, if they ever even get around to eating it. It's akin to collecting mania, where managing the collection replaces enjoying the things collected -- you enjoy buying albums more than listening to them, if they ever get played. We become, if the article is to be believed, "cold-eyed" and dispassionate -- which, presumably, is inherently bad.

Baudrillard seems to argue that no one can ever really taste the cereal, that this is always already an ideological illusion necessitated by consumer capitalism. His position seems to be that you can't "really" experience anything within capitalist social relations (if ever) -- sensory experience is always mediated, and the mediation becomes the focal experiential point. To beat those conditions, you need to upend all of society, not aggressively clip coupons.

I wouldn't go that far, but I often find myself falling into the collector/scoreboard trap of fetishizing the triumph of winning the exchange, or completing the series, or whatever it is that makes me lose sight of the goods themselves in light of some other goal that seems like it should be subordinate. Then I generalize from my experience, wonder if there are structural aspects to consumer society that encourage us to fall into those traps. (Since obviously it can't simply be my credulity or weakness. Obviously.) The looming question is whether these derivative pleasures that come directly from capitalism's structure are actually less pleasing to us than the authentic pleasures of enjoying objects and non-exchange-oriented experiences.

Further complicating things, capitalism tends to makes us think that all experiences and goods can be understood as exchange-oriented, as trades in which a measurable status outcome is at stake. Scoreboard everywhere, all the time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Prose Style of the Cognitariet (12 Nov 2010)

As a fan of abstruse jargon, I appreciated this essay by old-school autonomista Franco Berardi (aka Bifo) in e-flux journal, "Cognitarian Subjectivation." The title pretty much gives you a flavor of how the whole piece is. I'm not sure if it's actually insightful or whether I am just pleased that I have now read enough of this stuff to be able (I think) to decode most of it. As I read, I was actually shocked when a mundane straightforward proper noun like "Facebook" was used instead of some Latinate abstraction along the lines of "mediatized integumentary hypersocio-subjectivation apparatus." But I think the gobbledy-gook approach to style here may have a political purpose -- to slow readers down and impede textual consumption. The difficulty of reading this essay models what it implicitly argues for in its content -- slowing down, intervening in the smoothly overwhelming flow of information that, he claims, we assimilate with less and less pleasure and comprehension.

Berardi's chief point here is about the mismatch of limitless online cultural production and the very limited amount of time we have to take it in. "Marx spoke of overproduction, meaning the excess of available goods that could not be absorbed by the social market. But today it is the social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods. The social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of networked production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the cognitive class." In other words, party by choice and party by compulsion, we -- meaning people who deal with information or media for a living or to stay "connected"; i.e. "neuro-workers" whose "nervous systems act as active receiving terminals"' and who "are sensitive to semiotic activation throughout the entire day" -- are always online, processing information, manipulating signs and tinkering with social facts, and it is wearing us out. We have harnessed our sociality to the rhythms of real-time, and we can't keep up -- instead our "emotional energy" is being "exploited," mainly by the media companies that make use of our work harvested online -- that's the assembly line, by which our experiences are reassembled into memes.

Marx also "spoke" of communication technology serving mainly to speed up consumption so that the M-C-M' cycle would spin faster -- e.g., more commodities would be sold for profit in quicker revolutions of the fashion wheel. Berardi picks up this theme and applies it to our current situation:
digital technologies have enabled absolute acceleration, and the short-circuiting of attention time. As info-workers are exposed to a growing mass of stimuli that cannot be dealt with according to the intensive modalities of pleasure and knowledge, acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.
What he's arguing, I think, is something that makes intuitive sense to me: because of the pressures imposed by social media, etc., we now frantically process the sorts of things we once could enjoy -- things we once had time to think about and luxuriate with (via the "intensive modalities of pleasure and knowledge"). Stuff that we expect to give us pleasure, that once gave us pleasure, instead seems just as often to exhaust us. ("I'm going to download more and more music until I complete my collection of Krautrock releases from the 1970s... I know there are more out there... Must find them... Must tag them properly... Must blog them...")

After that, Berardi sort of spins his wheels in the article, throwing out some unanswerable, tangentially related questions ("Is it still possible to forge social autonomy from capitalist dominance in the psycho-economic framework of semiocapitalism?" Still? Was that ever possible?), touring through the rise of the creative class ("cognitive labor and venture capital met and merged in the dot-com") and offering some incredibly general recommendations ("If we want to find the way towards autonomous collective subjectivation we have to generate cognitarian awareness with regard to an erotic, social body of the general intellect" -- what does that mean? Apparently something to do with poetry and paradigm shifts).

Still, I think the valuable thing about this essay is simply the effort it takes to read it. Not that everything should be in social-theory code, but I found myself strangely refreshed after having printed this thing out from the pdf and sitting at my kitchen table and puzzling through it, away from screens and "semio-capital". I felt restored to myself in away: you might even call it autonomous subjectification.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Consumer Refusal (18 Oct 2010)

Mark Thoma linked to this analysis by Mary Daly of the San Francisco Fed, which included the following chart:
The warning the chart is intended to convey is that the U.S. could be in danger of emulating Japan's "lost decade" of minimal growth and near deflation, which makes bubble debts linger on and on and discourages consumer spending, since you can theoretically get more for your money if you wait. This in turn, if you believe economists, dampens animal spirits (which aren't so "animal" after all).

Jodi Dean, responding to this NYT article about Japan's "Great Deflation," offers another way of interpreting this slide into stasis.
Young Japanese people no longer fly to Manhattan to shop. They save their money. "They refuse to buy big ticket items like cars or television." and they lack "their elders' willingness to toil for endless hours at the office..."
The revolution? The dismantling or undermining? It reminds me of descriptions of the last decades of the USSR (not the exciting Gorbachev years but the dreary years of Brezhnev). Of course, the rhetoric is embedded in US capitalism where anything but BUY BUY BUY is a threat. To take this seriously means to note the real threat in not buying, not working endless hours at the office. To take another path.
They aren't buying it.
And perhaps increasingly we aren't either. Maybe "can't buy" is becoming "won't buy." Or maybe can't buy now means can't buy the lie that capitalism lifts all boats.
What goes along with not buying it? Making what we need.
In other words, Japan may be a model of a society in the process of rejecting consumerism. But is the "shrinking population and rising rates of poverty and suicide" that the Times article notes the price for this ideological reorientation? I daydream sometimes about the possibility of mass refusal of consumerism, but this is a purely egocentric fantasy of everyone choosing to live as I would have them for my own comfort. In reality, rejecting consumerism when you've been brought up to be a consumer is painful, and I wouldn't want to have to do it myself without much more mental preparation and institutional support of some sort.

This question ties in with what I was trying to get at in my post at Generation Bubble about consumerism in China. In the context of the Western insistence that Chinese consumers pick up the consumption slack for economies like Japan and the U.S., I wonder how quickly cultural attitudes toward consumerism can safely shift without creating ideological chaos that makes individuals' lives confusing and intolerably insecure. Will the U.S. start manufacturing more consumer goods if China rebalances? In a zero-sum global economy with respect to labor competitiveness, are Americans ready to become the immiserated reserve army poor, relatively speaking, and absorb declines in their standard of living as measured in terms of consumption?

In Cyber Marx, Nick Dyer-Witheford darkly suggests that globalization's "deindustrialising process comes full circle, by creating in the old metropolitan areas zones of immiseration so deep that they then become low wage areas which lure capital back from its flight to the one-time periphery: Scotland and Ireland are now attracting Japanese and Korean investment with industrial wage levels comparable to those in parts of Asia."

Incidentally, he also notes that globalization requires that consumption be reorganized in new consumerist lands through the media, another point I was trying to make in the Gen Bub essay:
a global projection of consumerism into zones previously entirely relegated to economic marginality demands a reconstruction of needs and desires -- of cultural traditions, religious prohibitions, dietary habits, sexual mores, traditions of self-sufficiency -- similar to that experienced by the Euro-American proletariat in the first part of the twentieth century, but exceeding it in scale. In this process the vanguard organisations are the great media corporations -- characterised by concentrated ownership, vertical and horizontal integration, and mastery of world-spanning arrays of convergent technologies....Globalisation means that everywhere, all the time, it is "video night in Kathmandu," as the habits of media spectatorship are stimulated and implanted worldwide.
"Video night" is outdated -- it's internet time everywhere, and Chinese consumers, as the McKinsey report stresses, are eager adopters of the medium. BAsically, the internet is first and foremost a consumerist training tool from capital's perspective, which is why it will continue to be difficult to make it into something subversive. Lots of minds are working hard to make it strictly consumerist, and they already have come up with the iPad to further their machinations. Hopefully people aren't buying that either.

Friday, August 12, 2011

RSS feed blues (30 July 2010)

I have a yo-yo relationship with my RSS feed. Sometimes I am on top of the flow and it all seems very generative, the ideas the reading stir in me seem proportional to my capacity to think them through. But more often, I fall behind the pace of news I have set for myself, and the entries pile up in my Google Reader, and I start to become increasingly anxious. I feel as though I am not only falling behind in my reading, but with the times themselves, that the rising number of unread posts is an index to how irrelevant I've become.

But that number is also an index of my ability to focus -- the higher it is, the more successful I have been at focusing on something more appropriately limited. I've been working on something "real." I've been reading and researching, not consuming.

Sometimes when the number gets high I respond by barreling through as many as I can in one sitting, usually late at night, and usually far beyond the point at which I can think about anything I'm reading with any kind of clarity, but instead experience it all en masse as proof that I don't know anything, everyone else knows more than I do, and wouldn't I be better off if I stopped trying to integrate and assimilate all this knowledge and all these conversations going on over my head once and for all? What's the point of drilling down to zero new items other than an arbitrary sense of accomplishment with no substance to it? The RSS reader makes my reading into a metered sprint to nowhere.

It becomes paralyzing, the overload. What makes me think I have something important to say, relative to all this that is already being said? What am I trying to learn anyway? What productive purpose is all of this serving? The ideas in the posts, which crop up somewhat randomly, pull me in dozens of different directions, each of which would require hours if not days to properly follow up on to the point where I could credibly respond. All the posts hit me less with their content but instead as tiny proofs of the focus of these other writers I respect, who somehow manage to evade the traps I am stuck in -- the frenzied dilettantism, the arrogance to believe I can keep up with all these different disciplines. Who do I think I am, James Franco?

I would likely benefit from a better set of filters that do the focusing for me, but what then? What sort of intellectual autonomy do I have left (presuming I have any to begin with) once I've outsourced my ability to stay focused?

Information Processing and Pleasure (30 July 2010)

I've been reading Tyler Cowen's provocative book The Age of the Infovore (a.k.a. Create Your Own Economy), which argues for the beneficial potential in seizing upon information organization as a form of pleasure itself rather than preparatory work that leads to pleasure. I'm somewhat skeptical of that; I tend to lament the time I spend sorting my library on iTunes instead of hearing the music. The need to organize and accumulate feels like a screen between me and the music; I can't even hear it anymore until it's organized, and I find myself listening as a way of processing to know how to sort a song, put it in its proper playlist, rather than to enjoy it in a more sensation-oriented way. I add so much metadata that it begins to obscure the data; the metapleasure cannibalizes from the pleasure I once derived from music. I end up just collecting music and information about it; much of it never gets played at all. And that gnaws at me at times. I fantasize about getting the "never played" playlist down to zero -- sometimes I consider leaving my iTunes playing while I sleep.

Cowen asserts that the organization makes the music "actually sound better" -- presumably that satisfaction from organizing can be enjoyed as sensuous. To me these are distinct satisfactions -- the organization "pleasure" feels more like OCD compulsion, an anxious restlessness at everything not being in its proper place. Whereas getting lost in the music is something entirely different, a suspension of anxiety and the need to "get things done." Perhaps the way I experience pleasure is no longer in sync with society -- i.e., my generation was socialized in a disappeared age, and the structure of everyday life now demands a different kind of subjectivity, responsive to different modes of pleasure. I may be insufficiently autistic, as Cowen suggests the pleasure in ordering and processing is a quintessential autistic trait that is becoming advantageous in an infocentric economy.

Cowen argues that ordering can be a mode of relaxation, rather than a mere manifestation of the psychic pressure to be productive: "Ordering and manipulating information is useful, fun, alternately intense and calming, and it helps us plumb philosophical depths.... It is a path toward many of the best rewards in life and a path toward creating your economy and taking control of your own education and entertainment." In other words, the infiltration of digitally mediated information processing into our daily practices gives a chance to experience more autonomy in our lives, provided we are content to live life at the level of "little bits," as he calls them -- memes, cultural fragments, decontextualized informational nuggets, isolated data points and so forth. Cowen makes this crucial point: When access is easier (which it has become, thanks to the internet), we tend to favor smaller pieces of information as a way of diversifying our options. This could be a matter of our inherent preference for novelty, though it may be a consequence of the values we inherit from our society, which privileges novelty over security, omnivorous dabbling over deep geekery. Either way, our internal filters are winnowing, such that we start to choke on anything more substantial than a tweet, become restless at the thought of assimilating larger, holistic hunks of culture. This seems to be a conceptual shift in how we approach experience, not as something overwhelming to lose ourselves in but as something to collect and integrate within ourselves as a series of discrete, manipulatable objects.

Social norms, biological imperatives and technological developments, then, have fragmented culture into ever smaller bits, as our identities have been cut free from traditional anchors. And experiences have been reified, in part because of the ease with which they can be digitized and distributed. As a result, we now carry the burden (or enjoy the freedom) of having to continually reassemble such fragments into something coherent and useful for ourselves -- into our self-identity, into an amalgam that represents our interests and self-perceptions, as well as the image we want to present socially. The Internet "encourages us to pursue our identities and alliances based around very specific and articulable interests," Cowen notes -- they need to be simplified to match the bittiness of how we all have begun to see the world.

As Cowen points out, culture was once largely ordered for us collectively by the nature of the slow media through which it reached us. Songs came in a prescribed order on an album. K-tel picked the hits for Music Explosion. Now we do the selection and the arranging for ourselves. "A lot of the value production has been moved inside the individual human mind," Cowen writes.

The key word is "individual," though. These amalgamations are increasingly private and intensely personal, but nonetheless need social validation, which was intrinsic to the cultural order when it was mandated for everyone. When there were only three TV channels, everyone wanted to know who shot J.R. and no one needed to explain what they were talking about with that or why they cared. Now I would need to do a lot of explaining if I was intensely curious about who shot J.R. (which I am, and please don't spoil it for me!).

The point is, we want our identities -- our cultural investments -- recognized; we want to be understood. So we end up having to explicate ourselves, "share" our private organizational schemes with ever more urgency on the host of new media forms designed primarily to facilitate this sort of communication -- the communication of privately curated little bits organized into a hierarchy, commented upon, glossed in an effort to make their contingent coherence more broadly comprehensible so that we feel less alone, less like we treading water alone in a vast sea of information.

Our ongoing efforts to communicate the significance of our assemblages is itself a harvestable kind of information processing -- it has personal value to us, making us feel understood and recognized. But it has monetary value to media companies and marketers as demographic data and semantic enrichment for their brands and products. Our quest for coherence and recognition and ontological security turns out to be very useful intellectual labor when resituated outside the crucible of our own identity.

Sometimes this seems very sinister to me, a monetization of our social being in a way that cuts us out of the rewards, even as it makes some "knowledge work" jobs expendable. It also leaves us with an identity that feels more fragile and reified at the same time; we are alienated from our immediate experience of ourselves and instead relate to ourselves as though our identity is a brand. It also means that the public sphere becomes "the social factory," as the autonomistas say, a realm that blends production and consumption so seamlessly that leisure and for-itself social activity and pure sensual immersion become impossible. They become irrelevant, outmoded forms of pleasure -- contemplation (decidedly and necessarily inefficient) is a casualty of the joys of efficient processing as pleasure. (Cowen calls this the Buddhist critique -- ordering precludes a sense of oneness and harmony with the universe that Buddhists pursue. Nicholas Carr makes similar points about focus in The Shallows; our brains are being changed by internet use to disregard contemplation as joy.)

We are driven to be producing informational value and accepting that as pleasure, rather then engaging in the kinds of pleasure Bataille grouped under the notion of expenditure -- waste, symbolic destruction, eliminating meanings, destructuration, entropic anarchy. That may be a good thing, unless you believe the need for "expenditure" builds up within a rationalized society and may explode into fascist movements if not ventilated. It seems that digitization means that our visions of excess are directed into a rage for ever larger collections of things (think hoarders) or ever more order.

Nothing's gonna stop the flow (27 July 2010)

Alan Jacobs, responding to Peggy Nelson's celebration of the flow, asks:
In the Flow, are “listening” and “consuming” distinguishable activities?
That's an interesting distinction: Listening, if I'm reading Jacobs right, is way of appropriating knowledge that is not simultaneously productive or at once situated in an exchange process, as the word "consuming" implies. The digitally mediated flow seeks to make any noneconomic responsiveness to art or culture or anything else in life more or less impossible -- or at least ideologically undesirable. Why just attend a lecture when you can liveblog it and "add value" with your coverage?

The implied imperative in Web 2.0 is to make all consumption productive and allows us to avoid the ignominious fate of becoming a passive consumer -- the straw-man figure of our era who represents the inauthentic conformist couch potato who has surrendered all agency. Perhaps no subject position has been more demonized than that one in late-capitalist consumerism, as various investigations of the rebel consumer illustrate.

The flow basically eliminates the lag time that listening presupposes, the space in which a more considered response can germinate (if warranted). You might call it the space that makes a deliberate aesthetic possible. (Ross Douthat suggests this space for contemplative reading is becoming a luxury, a class-based privilege contingent on being to afford a distraction-free retreat. I would add that it's also a matter of class whether one feels impelled to be relevant through accelerated productive consumption or whether one will be confident of one's relevance as a matter of habitus.) If the immediate aesthetic response is simply a coded form of obedience to existing relations of power, the social order inscribing itself on our hearts as Eagleton argues, then obviating the space of rumination reinforces the aesthetic's ideological function. We can't dispense with the aesthetic, which allows for real experiential pleasure, a pleasure that seems to resound deep within us and call forth a certain holistic sense of ourselves that is wedded to enduring ideals of the good. But when we make our aesthetic response more deliberate, there is a chance to align our pleasure with our identity with consciously affirmed social ideals.

The real-time revolution, the rise of the flow, basically requires all responses be even more spontaneous than aesthetic approval or else be forgotten and ignored as everyone moves on with the tide of events. From the perspective of real-time hegemony, listening is an arrogant effort to arrest the flow of events rather than swim with them and contribute to the flow's momentum. Trying to stand still amid the flow, to stop and listen, to focus longer than the flow's pace permits, is to ask to be drowned as the flood washes over you.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fashion As "Consumer Entrepreneurship" (23 April 2010)

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen linked to this essay by Jason Potts about fashion, in which he likens fashion cycles to business cycles and argues that fashion is what allows consumers to assume risk the way that entrepreneurs do. It's an interesting read, though for me it mainly sharpened my sense of which assumptions about fashion I accept and which I reject. I agree with this:

fashion seems to be an expression of risk culture on the consumer side, just as entrepreneurship is on the producer side of the economy. Could it be, then, that a rational, open society not only accommodates fashion, but actually requires it as a mechanism of competitive advantage and productivity growth?

But rather than claim that "a rational, open society" needs fashion, I would change that to "consumer-capitalist society." Consumerism requires fashion to sustain growth. If consumers lack the will to "explore new consumer lifestyles" they may fail to spend and begin to save, thus crippling the demand necessary to fuel economic growth. Thus fashion -- consumer risk -- is necessary to make us discontented with what we already have and regard it as obsolescent.

Fashion is the "creative destruction" of our tastes in things. It undermines the cultural capital that exists in the tastes that currently reign, Potts suggests, and puts new cultural capital up for grabs.

When a fashion cycle comes to an end, those who placed unfortunate bets during it are put back on a more nearly equal footing with those who were successfully fashionable. To be fashionable in the next cycle, fashion victor and fashion victim alike must pay the price of tooling up again in line with the latest trends.

That sounds sort of egalitarian, which is not how I would describe the fashion world. Each turn of the fashion wheel does not wipe the slate clean. People who "bet wrong" on fashion don't get to start fresh with the same amount of credibility. It's not a roulette wheel. Fashion mistakes have a cumulative weight; misjudge trends and people will ignore you next time. If you keep changing fashions in an attempt to hit a winning one, you run the increased risk of digging a deeper and deeper hole, like a liar who is trying to maintain earlier lies by piling on new ones.

And people enter the fashion field with different levels of social and cultural capital to begin with; fashion is a means to leverage those differences and make them effective. Fashion allows a status difference to translate into being treated differently, preferentially. The process of making fashion change allows those with the cultural capital to have greater say in what form those changes will take -- they can guarantee that they will suit their strengths in other areas or assure that fashion serves other ends they have, like making a profit. And fashion is programmed; the industry dictates when changes will occur and has professional consultants to determine what those changes will be. They may bubble up from the street or from amateurs, but amateurs cannot validate their innovations culturally. They need to be sanctified by the fashion industry; they need to become sellable.

It is easy to see how makers of fashion-oriented product are taking risks -- people might reject the goods. But consumers shoulder an aspect of the risk involved in fashion as well -- and what is at risk for them is status and, to some degree, self-esteem. Fashion, Potts claims, "a mechanism to periodically liquidate certain elements of a consumer lifestyle, triggering the incentive to learn about new things and to demand new goods." Potts views this "social pressure" as an inherently good thing. As things go out of fashion we are prompted to engage with the world to discover what has become fashionable, thus expanding our "flexibility in consumer lifestyles" and allowing us to experience the "sublime pleasures of risk-taking" -- kind of like what the subprime crisis did for the financial sector.

Potts's bias is clear -- he regards entrepreneurial risk-taking as good and necessary for everyone: "Fashion is part of how economies evolve, not of how they decay. It is another name for consumer entrepreneurship: and the more we have of that, the better." But that assumes people are like businesses (the brand of self) that need to constantly grow, and that analogy is, in my opinion, false. The notion of an ever-expanding, limitless identity is a construct that suits consumerism, but is it not an inherent human capacity. We don't naturally long for an ever-changing, ever-growing self that is perpetually unsatisfied with itself. Identity can and does have limits; recognizing those limits brings peace of mind. Potts argues that "consumers who opt out of social competition for the 'quiet life' fail to develop their ranges of experience and capabilities." Perhaps, but nothing about a "range" of experiences makes it preferable to the experiences themselves, even if they be limited in number. Everything that Potts regards as positive about fashion pressure for the economy is probably not so good for individuals.

Fashion effectively functions as a mechanism to induce and accelerate learning in complex lifestyles, enabling these lifestyles to become more complex still, thus improving their productivity in generating valuable consumption services.... Fashion is good for the economy because it is a mechanism to promote experimentation, learning, and re-coordination.

The valuable consumption services come at we the consumers' expense -- our lives become more "complex". In other words, fashion is the means by which we are exploited for surplus-value extraction as consumers, to complement the way it is extracted when we are wage workers. For consumers, fashion does not "promote experimentation" -- it makes us the subject of experiments. It doesn't promote "learning and re-coordination" so much as anxiety and confusion and disorientation that makes "learning" a desperate necessity.

Fashion tells you that you are a fool to prefer the experiences to the range, and it applies "social pressure" to make you change your view. By following fashion and disseminating its dictates and by innovating on its terms, we create additional value for the retailers of fashion-oriented products -- a description that is coming to embrace virtually everything that can be bought and sold. All we gain for what we have risked is an enlarged but more tenuous sense of self -- it's an identity bubble, with an inflated value that's rooted in a superficial expansion in knowledge of trends. But it could burst at any minute by a blast of existential angst. What does it all mean? Nothing. It means you have to keep changing for the sake of change itself or else confront the emptiness.

Searching for inspiration (12 April 2010)

Sometimes I feel so uninspired. Or should I say, (Sometimes I Feel so) Uninspired.. Usually what happens when I feel this way is I begin driving myself with ever more relentlessness through posts in my RSS reader, looking for something to spark my interest. But what I always seem to forget in these moods is how many ideas and articles I have already set aside because I was too busy to deal with them at the time. I probably have dozens of things that I have either starred or shared in Google Reader, thinking I would write about them later here. And I have a stack of articles printed out as well that I have been meaning to read and write about. Yet when I am in this mood, I never feel like going back to that stuff. (Once I shelve something for later, I am essentially logged it for permanent limbo.) In fact, the essence of the mood seems to be a weariness with the backlog, a sense of futility, and a craving for some deus ex machina that will crank the wheel of my "creativity" without my having to do much of anything.

So I press forward it pursuit of novelty, because novelty seems to work that way -- as canned creativity. The freshness of some particular meme can generate a seemingly automatic response: "So and so recently wrote X about Y. I agree/disagree with X, but believe that one must also think about Y this way. Also consider what Z said about Y when responding to so and so as well." (In a post about the sudden outburst of journalistic cheerleading for the economy, Ryan Avent notes how this mentality among journalists can stampede them into manufacturing new received wisdom.) Novelty can stand in as a replacement for deliberation, can simulate the feeling of having thought something through, simply because it leaves a residue that's similar to what I gain after I've thought my way through to what seems to me a fresh synthesis or analysis. When I go to the stream of fresh new content, it is because I want to avoid having to think anything through but still yield the same reward. I think that is the danger inherent in novelty generally.

A corollary to this is that I generally need to immediately think of something interesting to write about something I read or else I won't bother. This also seems like a problem.

Fashion Coercion (6 April 2010)

I was revisiting the Marginal Utility archive earlier and this entry from a few years ago captured my attention: "Rooting against fashion." It remains true; I still somewhat irrationally want fashion to fail, and most design too. There are, it seems to me, obvious reasons to root against fashion. Beyond being a means for mystifying class distinction (taste naturalizes inequality that is manufactured by social conditions), which is bad enough, fashion sets a social tempo for consumption that seems out of pace with most people's lives, so they experience it as coercive. It compels us to be uncomfortable with ourselves and accept novelty as an inevitable condition of reality, as a positive value. This creates a culture-wide superficiality bias so pervasive, it seems petulant to complain about it. One can belong to society only through an investment in novelty, through caring about arbitrary change and helping establish the illusion that it is not arbitrary and means something more than entropic variation.

Back when I wrote the other post, I wondered why I was cheering against prosperity, the enabling condition for the elaboration of complexity in fashion. And I was cheering against something that seemed to bring other people pleasure -- that let other people feel interesting. What do I have against other people being interesting? Am I threatened by it? Probably. Fashion is a field in which I will never be interested (I am very much a follower and not an early adopter or a trend setter), so from a human capital standpoint, I prefer it when it sinks in cultural esteem. Consciously or not, I'm sure I want people to compete on the fields that I recognize as strengths of mine. I think that I win when fashion and design fail.

Of course not all fashion can fail; something has to occupy the space structurally afforded to fashion trends by our culture. When I root against fashion, I root against this aspect of culture as a whole; it's not as though I wish something else would become trendy. I have the hopeless wish that there weren't any trends at all. But identifying something as a trend is fairly subjective -- the trends that I adopt myself don't seem like trends to me. Only the stuff that other people are collectively doing is recognizable and contemptible as trends. Trends are simply the way people participate in culture without actively making anything -- unless you buy the idea that participation is a kind of production, since consumption of that sort "produces" new and useful information (usually marketing related) about the goods. Our consumption makes meanings, but it isn't necessarily meaningful work, I think. But I waver back and forth about the idea of immaterial labor and consumptive production, wondering about the subjective element in that as well. (Do we have to be aware of the meanings we are producing to consider ourselves productive? Does anyone ever reach the zero degree of passivity? Is one never aware of one's own objective passivity since our consciousness of ourselves is inherently active? Questions in a world of blue.) I tend to think of counter-trend behavior as a more "authentic" way of cultural participation, inherently more active as it functions as an implicit critique and requires conscious resistance. Design and fashion present themselves to consumers as means to avoid critique and resistance in favor of the pleasures of acceptance, the liberty to ignore social critique and simply enjoy the idea of oneself, fitting in and being approved by society at large.

My default interpretation of designy-ness is that it is an attempt at coercion disguised as an effort to please me. I persist in thinking this despite the manifest good intention of most designers, who I don't think are in bad faith about wanting to "help" people or improve their lives with design. Nevertheless, they want to dominate me, and I am supposed to enjoy surrender. (At the New Inquiry, J. Bernstein makes a related point about the politics of reading.) But instead I take pleasure in stubborn resistance. The user-friendliness of, say, Apple's computers strikes me, like many others (not so well represented in the media, it seems) as a prison. I read the convenience as their attempt to predict what I want without my consent or input. If I go along, I won't know if what they wanted me to want was what I really wanted. This attitude gets incredibly counterproductive at times. When autonomy always trumps gratitude, you have to go through life making a point of being difficult to please, and pleasure, if and when it comes, must be private almost by definition.

Boredom production (6 April 2010)

This PSFK item about social networks ends with a platitude about keeping fickle consumers interested.
The rapid pace of change and relative unpredictability of when consumers’ rapt attention will become boredom is an ongoing challenge for social media players to continually understand their users, lifestyles and consumption habits – and to adapt to keep them engaged.
This reminded me of my most recent essay for Generation Bubble, where I argue that we are continually driven to produce our own boredom. The gist of my piece is that social media lets us function as our own mini ad agencies, working to exhaust the meaning of things more quickly so as to expand the flexibility of our identities, and to make each identity-signifying gesture seem more significant in the moment. Does that make sense? My point is that we want to expend the meaning in a good in a fireworks-like explosion of broadcasted signification; we don't want our goods to continue to signify who we are after the contrived moment of their presentation to our public. As a result, we purposely make ourselves bored with things, and boredom is a state of open, uncommitted possibility for us, whereas ongoing engagement with some specific set of thing is confining.

So there is no way to keep consumers engaged without continually presenting them with novelty -- to repackage the same crap as something new, if necessary. It's not "relatively unpredictable" that consumers will be bored; it's completely predictable, and the pace at which that exhaustion occurs is continually accelerating.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Reviews for consumption convenience (16 March 2010)

I understand what Jason Kottke is getting at in this post, but it still struck me as unsettling. He argues that the "new rules for reviewing media" are that reviewers should primarily discuss the convenience of consumption (what formats it is in, how easy is it to carry around, etc.) rather than the success of a work's content, which he seems to regard as a pure matter of personal taste and not apparently not something reviewers of any sort -- "citizen" or professional -- would have anything useful to say about.
In the end, people don't buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts.
That seems to suggest that ease of consumption is the only thing purchasers care about; device integration has trumped aesthetic experience altogether, or worse, using your devices is the aesthetic experience. This seems like designer sensibility run amok. Kottke argues that "Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading). Format matters." And that's true. But one doesn't need a critic to point those things out. And that doesn't mean those concerns are not superficial; it's not as though all texts delivered to Kindles are the same because the medium is the message. Format is not synonymous with form; in some ways format denotes the material aspects of a work the maker doesn't ultimately control or care about when they are done shaping the form of a work. Discussion of form is interesting; discussion of format can be thoroughly exhaustive in a parenthesis under the title. The idea that I would want to read more about that in the text of the review itself seems nuts to me.

This may be a question of how the difference between reviews and criticism is evolving. If Kottke and his ilk have their way, reviews will be about the hydraulics of consumption -- how fast cultural goods can be pumped through the media we have encrusted ourselves with and how well the goods will serve as lifestyle accouterments. Criticism will recede into recondite elaborations of personal experiences with the goods, as the idea of trying to capture a consensus view will have disappeared completely from public discourse. Public discourse itself seems sort of threatened anyway, subject to replacement by social networks. Lost will be that middle ground of critical reviews, which help establish a context of reception that makes our engagement with something far richer and more meaningful.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

As Meritocracy Fades, Social Networks Rise (18 Feb 2010)

A key to getting people to indiscriminately share online is to convince them that the "merit" of what they're sharing is irrelevant -- that they don't need a reason to share, that sharing is intrinsically rewarding. Many of the arguments in favor of using Twitter, for example, can be reduced to this, usually with the winking implication that sharing is also good self-marketing in partial disguise. If we worry about having something important to say, we will miss out on the chance to say something potentially valuable to someone else. Hence every moment we stay silent, we are destroying value! Sealed lips sink ships!

The ideology of meritocracy, I think, is incompatible with this ideology of sharing, which belongs to a vision of a "networked society." We are shifting away from the idea that we accomplish success through special personal merit (the much-hated elitist model), toward the idea that we achieve success through maximum publicity (the much lauded and enjoyed Jersey Shore model). Populism, the contempt for expertise, the championing of reality TV, the futility of "going Galt" -- they are all connected. But to explain why, it helps to debunk the meritocracy myth first. In this Forbes opinion piece, Reason Foundation analyst Shikha Dalmia uses Hayek to make a libertarian case against the idea of markets rewarding merit. This is unusual, as libertarian/Randian types tend to see market rewards as proof of virtuously selfish conduct, which makes most sane people think they are out of their minds. Dalmia's case hinges on the difference between merit -- a moral idea -- and value, an economic concept. Markets reveal value, not merit. And value, if you follow Hayek's argument in "The Use of Knowledge", is mainly generated by happening to have vital, local information at a fortuitous time -- not because you are a genius inventing brilliant information for market consumption. Dalmia:
The beauty of the market, Hayek brilliantly pointed out, is that it allows people to use knowledge of their particular circumstances to generate something valuable for others. And circumstances, he emphasized, are a matter of chance -- not of gift. Furthermore, since no two people's circumstances are ever identical, every producer potentially has something--some information, some skill or some resource--that no one else does, giving him a unique market edge. "[T]he shipper who earns his living from using otherwise empty or half-filled journeys of tramp-steamers, or the estate agent whose whole knowledge is almost exclusively one of temporary opportunities, or the arbitrageur who gains from local differences of commodity prices, are all performing eminently useful functions based on special knowledge of circumstances of the fleeting moment not known to others," noted Hayek.
In a functioning market, Hayek insisted, financial compensation depends not on someone's innate gifts or moral character. Nor even on the originality or technological brilliance of their products. Nor, for that matter, on the effort that goes into producing them. The sole and only issue is a product's value to others. Compare an innovation as incredibly mundane as a new plastic lid for paint cans with a whiz-bang, new computer chip. The painter could become just as rich as the computer whiz so long as the savings from spills that the lid offers are as great as the productivity gains from the chip. It matters not a whit that the lid maker is a drunk, wife-beating, out-of-work painter who stumbled upon this idea through pure serendipity when he tripped over a can of paint. Or that the computer whiz is a morally stellar Ph.D. who spent years perfecting his chip.
Most people instinctively don't like this sort of definition of value, as Dalmia points out. It smacks of postmodernism, of contingency and relativism, of a whimsical world without justice. It makes a mockery of the idea of use value as a basis for economic value. There is only exchange value, which can seem to imply that in a market society, everything is negotiable, even what heretofore seemed like absolute truths.

Meritocracy is a ex post facto rationalization that helps mask this somewhat terrifying reality about capitalism -- it provides us a first line of psychological defense when we are in danger of recognizing that "all that is solid melts into air," as Marx memorably put it in his description of capitalism's relativizing force in the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
Of this, Dalmia insists, we need not be afraid. Shine sweet freedom, shine your light on me: "Markets don't just expand and democratize the concept of merit; they render it moot," Dalmia argues. "No longer does it matter what great qualities reside in you. What matters is if you can make them work for others. The concept of merit is replaced by that of value. Merit is intrinsic, concentrated and atomistic; value is relational, decentralized and social." In other words, market yourself well and you don't need any intrinsically worthy qualities, be they the aristocratic chimeras of breeding, the moral virtues sanctified in religion, or the cold, hard cash worshiped by capitalists. Instead you just need to share what information you have without necessarily understanding its value or believing that it has intrinsic merit, but overrating its importance all the while. Then society will return the "real" value of it to you, apparently.

And in that we have a pretty good explanation of the rise of social networks -- which have the magical property of making markets for information appear as nonmarket forums for sociality. Part of the rise of the "networked information economy," as Yochai Benkler calls it, involves using the word network as a screen for the word market so that the players in that market will rip themselves off and contribute labor and content for nothing.

What would happen, though, if networks actually supplanted markets -- if people stopped leveraging the unique contextual information they possess to game markets and instead shared it compulsively, without a view to undermining competitors but out of a quest for social recognition? Do we have to have markets providing an incentive to exploit information to make that information useful and efficacious, to translate it into "value"? Or could masses of volunteered information be sorted according to some other principle ("merit"?) in order to derive facts about the conditions of the economy at various times and places?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Why New Music Always Sucks (7 Jan 2010)

It occurred to me while listening to Veckatimist by Grizzly Bear for the third or fourth time. As the songs played, I was finding myself perversely satisfied when I could pin down for myself a reason not to like it (and not to try listening to it again), whereas I had a vague feeling of dread if I found myself reserving judgment, extending the benefit of the doubt. I realized I can't really hear it for what it is; I want it to suck too much.

Rather than hoping new music I hear about -- particular from hype vectors online -- will be good, I almost always want this music to suck, preferably in spectacular, self-evident fashion. But why? Why do I have this entirely counterproductive attitude? Is it because I am "curmudgeonly"? Is it because I have too much amour propre to endorse what's trendy, even to myself in my private listening moments? (Maybe it's no longer possible to believe in private moments in the era of real-time networking.) Am I just old and bitter about how everything was better when I was younger? All that may be.

Mostly, though, I have this pressing sense that to like something new will increase my already unmanageable cultural consumption burden. And that burden seems partly the result of technological developments that puts all this consumable culture a few clicks away on my computer, and partly the result of behavioral changes -- e.g., a burgeoning tendency to hoard -- that have come along with all that accessibility. If I end up appreciating Veckatimist, then I'll inevitably have to seek out all the band's other albums, and not only that, I'll feel obliged to investigate all the bands who are ever compared to or lumped in with Grizzly Bear. And I'll need to be predisposed to like those bands to a certain degree, and then the responsibility of fandom would just continue to ripple out from there. Soon everything becomes diluted, the passion for listening gets spread too thin as it strains to embrace everything.

It seems easier to be skeptical and wait to see if people still seem to care about the music six or seven years later. Or if they don't, I can "rediscover" it and champion it to myself against the heedless indifference of the masses and the cognoscenti. (Currently on my personal hit parade is one such "rediscovery": Fleetwood Mac's Mirage.) I'm content to live in a time lag rather than chase the zeitgeist.

I suppose an alternative is to be more radically married to the cultural moment, collect nothing in the way of music, and pay attention only to what's new. I could float on the sea of ubiquitous musical novelty, let it carry me wherever it's going. Then I can simply try to like everything without feeling as though that means something or makes me responsible for learning more. I don't know. Grizzly Bear is not the music that will inspire me to do this.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Pleasure procrastination (31 Dec 2009)

The best defense for the advertising industry is that it licenses our pleasure. It gives us permission to relax and enjoy things. But that assumes that we need such permission, that our instincts lie elsewhere -- possibly with a different sort of pleasure that doesn't revolve around consumption, around possessions. It's not clear whether by pushing its peculiar form of desire, the ad industry isn't undermining other latent modes of pleasure, leading us to neglect them and let them atrophy. When I travel and escape from advertising, it never fails to startle me how much I miss it in subtle ways, how I need guidance about what I should be wanting. The absence of consumerist desire can seem to hurt. The pleasures of travel, such as they are, sometimes fail to compensate.

The difficulty of desire has long been a staple of French social theory. Virtually all of Lacan is about the subject. Baudrillard begins his essay "Concerning the Fulfillment of Desire in Exchange Value" with a memorable anecdote about the difficulty of ridding ourselves of what Bataille called the accursed share: "There was a raid on a U.S. department store several years ago. A group occupied and neutralized the store by surprise, and then invited the crowd by loudspeaker to help themselves. A symbolic action! And the result? Nobody could figure out what to take." The basic idea is that we are strangers in the world our economy has outfitted us with -- we must learn how to be subjects in it, and the adjustment is painful.

Baudrillard claims that "beyond the transparency of economics, where everything is clear because it suffices to 'want something for your money,' man apparently no longer knows what he wants." This is persuasive to me because I often need to see that something is on sale or is a "good deal" in order to permit myself to buy it. (This is why I generally shop at Savers and Goodwill.) I've argued before somewhere (can't find) that ads, as part of their function, promote the market mentality, the neoclassical economist's view of humans as efficient utility calculators for this reason, persuading us we should find pleasure in maximizing utility, in making good deals. In reality, no deals are required for pleasure. It's a free gift that comes with being alive.

The idea that we need external forces urging us to indulge fits well with the findings of market researchers Suzanne B. Shu and Ayelet Gneezy (pdf) about procrastinating pleasure, which John Tierney reports on in the NYT. The researchers claim in the abstract that "the tendency to procrastinate applies not only to aversive tasks but also to positive experiences with immediate benefits." We like deadlines, which make us decisive and prompt us to action. Advertising, marketing, sales -- all these seem to work best when they make it seem like we must "act now!" Maybe the details of the pitch and the dubious emotional associations they cultivate are ultimately irrelevant; maybe only the pressure they put on us forms the real substance of ads. The secret lurking in consumerism may be that we really don't want to spend our time liquidating gift cards and forcing ourselves to the mall -- that this isn't inherently fun, contrary to the pervasive ideology. Free of priming we may find it a hassle to have to want stuff. We postpone consumerist pleasures not out of protestant-ethic guilt but because they actually aren't all that compelling to us when isolated from their marketing.

The assumption that there is something inherently harmful in postponing consumerist pleasure seems a bit dubious to me. There's pleasure in restraint and indulgence both. Tierney sums up the researchers' apparent views this way: "Once you start procrastinating pleasure, it can become a self-perpetuating process if you fixate on some imagined nirvana. The longer you wait to open that prize bottle of wine, the more special the occasion has to be." But doesn't that work both ways -- the longer we wait, the more special the occasion will seem to be when we open it? (Tierney's conclusion sounds the same note.) We can only imagine the nirvana because we are building it around some delay in fulfillment, letting fantasies crystallize around some forestalled moment of truth. Immediate gratification isn't more pleasurable than the circuit of desire, the chase and the capture.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fast-fashion culture (3 Nov 2009)

Lane Kenworthy linked to this NYT article by sociologist Arlie Hochschild (pioneer of the concept of "emotion work" -- the often uncompensated labor of managing emotions to allow for social relations and market exchanges to transpire). The article offers an explanation of why Americans rank marriage's importance so highly yet divorce more frequently than citizens of other nations.
Why are Americans on this marriage-go-round? Is it the “restless temper” Alexis de Tocqueville observed 175 years ago? It is true, Cherlin observes, that more than people elsewhere, we move from job to job, city to city, and even church to church. Could this be linked to a missing government safety net and ­family-protective policies? Cherlin gives little credence to this idea, but he leaves us with another useful notion — that more than we realize, we’ve become accustomed to a move-along life-go-round world.
That is of a piece with the theory that technology has made possible the marketing-driven acceleration of the pace of consumption at all levels of social life. Hochschild cites Juliet Schor who "shows in her research on 'fast fashion' that we consume and discard dresses, shoes, toys, furniture and cellphones at a quicker pace than we did in the past."Spouses are just another product we are encourage to consume quickly and move on from -- after all, think of all the associated consumption that is driven by courtship and wedding rituals. Why not cycle people through those as often as possible? It's a win-win, right? Everyone enjoys the whirlwind of romance, being the center of their own drama that climaxes with a big party.

Hochschild supplies some context for that idea:
Could this “fast-fashion” culture be filtering into our ideas about human connection? On Internet sites and television shows, we watch potential partners searching “through the rack” of dozens of beauties or possible beaus. Some go on “speed dates”; others go to “eye-gazing parties” — two minutes per gaze, 15 gazes — to find that special someone. If advertisers first exploited the “restless spirit” by guiding consumers’ attention to the next new thing, a market spirit now guides our search for the next new love. The culprit is not the absence of family values, I believe, but a continual state of unconscious immersion in a market turnover culture.
It does seem that this is so, though the key idea here is that market turnover has become identity turnover, and that identity turnover proceeds whether or not it remains a market imperative. As I've been arguing in the past few posts, impersonal cash markets have given way to embedded markets in which subjects try to maximize their selfhood in a public forum, commanding resources to serve that end and turning attention, status, etc, into more explicit forms of currency.

The problem is that we have shifted retail consumption into the public sphere, when markets once were making it private. The cash economy democratized consumption, but social networking,etc. is resocializing it within a commercial matrix. Our self-publicized consumption is more susceptible to fast-fashion acceleration, as the signifying power of consumption gestures is relative to who else has made similar gestures and so on. The meaning in the gestures therefore have only brief shelf life. Identity needs more and different things to consume and display more rapidly -- it needs more things to share. Yet the alibi of sharing hides how voracious the appetite for novelty has become.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Nanostories, etc. (31 Aug 2009)

Harper's editor Bill Wasik, the inventor of the purposely pointless internet-driven media event known as a flash mob, has expanded on what that experiment taught him in a book, And Then There's This. Fittingly enough, I finished reading it while I was down the shore, in the land that the internet seems to have forgot. (When they hear wi-fi, many in Wildwood would probably think you are talking about WIFI 92, the top 40 station in Philly circa 1978.) The book is primarily about how the internet encourages the acceleration of our cultural consumption by prompting us -- now no longer passive consumers but media operatives ourselves, fascinated by our own impact and keen to play at being an insider -- to refashion news as "nanostories," microstories whose popularity (measured by internet metrics) peaks quickly and then rapidly dissipates. Whatever real underlying fundamental trends there might be get lost in the noise. Culture accelerates, becomes quicker in its payouts, and becomes more compulsive and addictive. This, as Wasik notes, makes the internet just like a slot machine, whose quick-hitting but apparently random rewards are engineered to make players addicted: "games of chance seem to be more addictive in direct proportion to the rapidity and continuity of their 'action' -- how quickly, that is, a gambler is able to learn the outcome of his wager and then make another." Online, the action is the tracing of trends and our own statistically determined significance. Twittering, and then seeing what sort of response it provokes, etc. We are never at a loss for an opportunity to try to garner attention, and these efforts are archived, deepening our potential self, even if it is all noise. The internet's archiving capacity means there is an excess of the narratives from which we shape our sense of self. "With the Long Tail of Truth, telling ourselves new stories about ourselves has never been easier: abundant, cheap distribution of facts means an abundant, cheap and unlimited variety of narratives, on demand, all the time."

But the internet is not only a machine for generating memes, but also for manufacturing spurious hermeneutics. Wasik contends that we have all become conscious analysts of how media narratives operate (we have the "media mind," as he puts it); the presence of so many independent operators in the media space compresses those narratives, turns them over quickly as we all experiment to see which framing techniques attract the most attention. (Popularity tends to snowball, since popularity is factored in to what choices are given prominence.) The internet has given us means to sell ourselves the way products have long been sold to us, and we've embraced them, adopting advertising measuring tools (the data on popularity the internet makes available to use for our personal pages) as markers of moral value. The potential scope of our reach invalidates previous mores:
When your words or actions or art are available not only to your friends but to potentially thousands or even millions of strangers, it changes what you say, how you act, how you see yourself. You become aware of yourself as a character on a stage, as a public figure with a meaning.
As a result, we manage our public meaning like a brand manager, and perfect the art of culture monitoring -- meta consumption of media. We begin to consume the buzz about buzz, or pure buzz, with no concern with what it's about, only whether we can exploit it for self-promotion.

What's lost in the focus on the meta-story of something's popularity and usefulness for our own carefully monitored identity is obviously the thing itself, which becomes difficult to recognize and consume in traditional ways. Artists are seen as the "instantiation of a trend," and their work is assessed in that regard -- the mythical organic reading is even harder to achieve or even simulate. "Call it the age of the model" Wasik writes. "Our metaanalyses of culture (tipping points, long tails, crossing chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem mroe relevant and vital than the content of culture itself.... The real vigorish is in learning not about what is cool than learning about how cool works." When all that resonates about a meme or idea is its viral potential, all ideas are ideas about marketing.

This concern with only the momentary impact of any story and its metasignificance decontextualizes them, allows ideas to function as commodities: "The meme vision of culture -- where ideas compete for brain space, unburdened by history or context -- really resembles nothing so much as an economist's dream of the free market. We are asked to admire the marvelous theoretical efficiencies (no barriers to entry, unfettered competition, persistence of the fittest) but to ignore the factual inequalities." In other words, nanostories, not surprisingly, preserve the status quo, reinforcing our own vanity and self-centeredness along with the market as timeless, unquestionable norm.

Wasik takes a look at the decisive role of boredom. We are not inherently disposed to be bored -- Wasik cites research that suggests boredom is a defense mechanism that we invoke when we are confronted with too many choices. But those choices are what capitalism offers us as proof of our purchasing power as consumers. So we experience boredom as proof of our centrality in the consumerist cosmos, and this boredom is a deliberate achievement of the existing social order -- it fixates us on novelty as a value, and drives us to consume habitually, for ideological rather than material fulfillment. It's pretty self-evident, I guess -- boredom is a product of awareness of choice, and the advertising infrastructure does nothing but make us aware of choices. Wasik argues that the ubiquitous boredom helps drives the acceleration of media consumption by fostering backlashes on schedule; I would only add that the boredom is market-driven -- the oversupply of ideas and goods are stimulating the demand adequate to them, changing the attitudes and self-concepts of consumers in the process.

So the market imposes the possibility of novelty on everyday life, which engenders boredom, the feeling of being hopelessly overwhelmed by choice and the drift into aimless lassitude. In this state we are unwilling to commit to anything deeply -- it might grow boring -- so we invest our time and effort on into shallow things that are quickly disposed of, or the most convenient experiences, things which are by their nature not very satisfying. So we become temperamentally insatiable.

In the final chapter, Wasik suggests strategies for fighting the acceleration and compression of cultural consumption: one is rationing our information supply and adopting a renunciative attitude toward the internet. Just say no. Another is time-shifting -- "delaying one's experience of a cultural product long enough that any hype or buzz surrounding it has dissipated." That is something I wholeheartedly endorse and practice: I am currently watching the second season of Dallas -- and loving it. I don't know that it helps anything though. I needed there to be buzz before to even think of watching it now. Ultimately Wasik has no answers -- we must strike a balance, he suggests in Aristotalian fashion, but gives no sense of what that might be. We must choose "judiciously" what information we consume, but offers no criteria for this. He advocates "sustainable approaches to information" but little sense of what that would entail. Like Žižek argues, it is easier to imagine the end of the world -- the destruction of the internet by some super virus or something -- than to imagine a way to consume it temperately.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Going analog (28 July 2009)

A few days ago, in an attempt to recapture some of the deeper pleasure I used to take in listening to music, I hooked up my turntable, which had been sitting in a closet on top of a milk crate holding the few remaining records I didn't give away when I moved two years ago.

When I finally got the cables straightened out and dropped the needle on a record (The Other Woman by Ray Price), the first thing I noticed -- something that I had totally forgotten about playing records -- is that each time you play one, it sounds a little different. There are many contingencies: static, dust, the needle's fidelity, the speed at which the turntable revolves. Records get worn out, obviously; they develop skips and so on. Some of the skips on records I had as a kid are burned into my mind, so that when I hear "Born to Run" on the radio, I still brace myself for a skid across the "wha-uh-uh-ohohoh" part at the end that never comes. I have this unique (albeit mostly useless) relation to that song because of the specific damaged record I owned. (Who knows? Maybe people will come to sentimentalize imperfections in the compression of their audio files. I tend to delete them instead.)

It's silly to sentimentalize skips in records, but they alert me to the fragility of the entire musical encounter, they hint at the miracle of performance that we typically take for granted. It figures music as something rare, something requiring care and preservation, something that is still sanctified despite its commercialization. It seems that digitization has destroyed once and for all that palpable sense of sacredness in music. Music still has its functionality, but it seems less autonomous from the culture industry -- because of its materiality, analog has built-in friction to hypermediatization, to infinite copies and regressive recursivity and the production endless simulacra of simulacra. With analog, the signal degrades, and in that there seems to be a sort of salvation these days.

I am attracted to the possibility of negating aspects of music consumption that in recent years have made it more "convenient." I'm strangely hoping to make listening to music purposely inconvenient. Instead of delighting in being able to take my whole music collection anywhere on a MP3 player, I'm returning to the quaint idea that I have to go to a particular place to indulge in my music, a de facto listening booth. When I go into the room with the turntable and put a record on, I'm specifically interested in hearing music, not making a soundtrack for my life. Instead of being a pretend DJ for my own household radio station, I put on an album side, from the very limited selection available to me, and listen to every song the producers decided to put on there, for better or worse. No skipping songs impatiently, no opening an audio editor to delete boring parts, no metadata editing and star ranking and image file curating. The music just plays.

If I grow tired of the few records I have, I can't just go to an MP3 blog online and get some new ones. Instead I'd have to go to a thrift store in the neighborhood and pray that something worthwhile will be buried in there. In my mind is a vague wish list of records it would be nice to discover, many of which I used to own but of course got rid of in the excitement over digital convenience. It's hard to explain why, but these seem like records that make more sense as vinyl artifacts: Paul McCartney's Red Rose Speedway. Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. And Hard Nose the Highway by Van Morrison. Bob Dylan's Street-Legal (even though the mastering is horrible).

It's a pure nostalgia move, I know, trying to re-create the listening conditions of my 11-year-old self, and it seems like a counterproductive road to be on, one that leads to becoming a prisoner of history. What am I going to do, only listen to music from the LP era for the rest of my life, or become one of those extreme audiophiles who spends $40 on limited-run vinyl pressings of new material? Of course I'm still going to listen to music through my computer, but I'm hoping to rekindle the memory of an alternative -- as if going analog is some form of cultural resistance, a faint form of negative dialectics. At a time when we can access as much music as we want pretty much anywhere we want, I'm trying to restore a sense of limits to my listening, develop a relationship to songs again as mediated by the physical object of the album. Does this make the medium the message to a degree that the specific content of the records is obviated? That, I guess, is what I am going to find out.

UPDATE: This FT article (via PSFK) details Apple's rumored efforts to rekindle the fetishization of albums. It's like Apple and its minions are one step ahead, preemptively co-opting any efforts to create a sphere of culture immune to its influence. My fantasy is about detechnologizing my relation to music. Apple apparently is trying to leave no escape routes, not even into the past.

Slowing down (2 July 2009)

Complaining about the technologically mediated acceleration of life and the loss of the time for contemplation has become a lot like crying wolf. From what I gather, people seem to be sick of hearing it -- as a meme it had its moment several months ago. Even though I've beaten that drum many times, I find myself thinking: Okay. Concentrating is hard, but then when hasn't it been? There are a surfeit of distractions; I get it. But it's not like I am going to go on an information fast and spend my free time meditating. I'm not going to dismantle my RSS feed and devote an hour a night instead to reading a single poem. Those seem like idealistic, nostalgic fantasies about the "life of the mind," which in practice would most likely amount to a refusal to engage with life as it is actually being lived. For example, I very much wish I was in a world without Twitter and maybe even without telephones, but that doesn't mean it's imperative that I live as if it were so. Down that road lies the technological equivalent of veganism, wherein everyone in my life would need to adapt to my fussy, righteous rules about which ubiquitous behaviors were permissible in my little world.

Still, though David Bollier's account of an April 2009 lecture (probably based on this paper, pdf) by media studies professor David Levy has its share of neo-Thoreauvianism in it, it nevertheless raises some points worth considering. The main gist is this: "The digital communications apparatus has transformed our consciousness in some unwholesome ways. It privileges thinking that is rapid, productive and short-term, and crowds out deeper, more deliberative modes of thinking and relationships." I have said the same sort of thing lots of times, but, as Levy asks, what actually constitutes the difference between "productive" thought and "deliberative" thought? I tend to think of the former as data processing -- tagging mp3 files, for instance -- and the latter as analytical inquiry, but it may not be so easy to distinguish the two. The mental modes tend to flow into one another. Working through menial mental tasks sometimes allows for inspiration to break through -- and after all, what is one supposed to be doing with one's mind when it is taking its time to deliberate? The "information overload" critique sometimes centers on the idea of slowing down the mind. But the mind is always moving, thinking one thought after another; the problem with the internet is that it gives it too many places to go all at once, has the potential to gratify too many idle curiosities. Bollier suggests that "We are sabotaging those inner capacities of consciousness that we need to be present to others and ourselves." But the dream that Levy attributes to Vannevar Bush seems a more apt description of what we've tried to do. "Bush’s intention was clear: by automating the routine aspects of thinking, such as search and selection, he hoped to free up researchers’ time to think more deeply and creatively." It's just that the two functions can't be separated; the way in which we think about things doesn't have degrees. It's holistic; we require routine tasks to fire our creativity, and creativity can often become routinized.

It's important to distinguish between having information at our disposal and lacking the discipline to make contemplative use of it. Often the two are implicitly elided, as if too much information automatically leads to frivolous surfing through it. Bollier writes, "Fast-time activities absolutely crowd out slow-time alternatives. The now eclipses the timeless. And we are becoming diminished creatures in the process." I don't quite understand this. We have to live in the now, because we are not "timeless." We die. And the problem with information overload doesn't lie with the activities and the media so much as they do with the approach we take to them, the ideology about information consumption we have internalized in the course of mastering these new technologies. We think they are supposed to make our lives convenient, and we measure that in terms of time efficiency. If we do many different things in the same span of time we once were forced to do only a few things -- if on the train we can read 17 books simultaneously on a Kindle rather than one -- than we are "winning." The pressure to consume more is not inherent to the technology or in some new perception of time, but is instead inherent to consumer capitalism, which fetishizes quantity. As Levy points out, the roots of this are in the "production problem" -- how to keep making more stuff if people are already sated and don't have the time to consume more. The solution: manufacture new wants and speed up consumption. So the consumerist imperative probably led us to develop many of these technologies. But still, we should be careful not to blame the tools for the kind of people we have become. (If Twitter went out of business tomorrow, many people's discourse would still remain superficial and inane.) If we have ceased to be able to love, it is not because we lack the leisure or are too distracted. It is because we have learned to privilege different sorts of experience, are rewarded for different sorts of accomplishments.

So the call for "an 'information environmentalism' to help educate people about the myriad and aggressive forms of mental pollution afflicting our lives" seems misguided. The "mental pollution" is an effect, not a cause, of our loss of contemplative peace. That is, our mental lives are not degraded by information but by a pervasive cultural attitude about it, that treats ideas as things to be collected and/or consumed.

ADDENDUM: Ben Casnocha's review of Tyler Cowen's new book presents a far more cogent critique of the "attention crisis" hullabaloo then what I've provided above.
We have always had distractions. We have never had long attention spans. We have never had a golden age where our minds could freely concentrate on one thing and spawn a million complex and nuanced thoughts. Cowen reminds us that charges to the contrary have been made at the birth of every new cultural medium throughout history. Moreover, the technologies that are supposedly turning our brain into mush are very much within our control. The difference between the new distractions (a flickering TV in the kitchen) and age-old ones (crying infant) is that the TV can be turned off, whereas the crying infant cannot.
He also notes the way in which chaos and "un-focus" can lead us to breakthrough insights. Though I don't remember agreeing with much of Sam Anderson's New York magazine essay in praise of distraction, this point that Casnocha highlights seems apropos: "We ought to consider the possibility that attention may not be only reflective or reactive, that thinking may not only be deep or shallow, or focus only deployed either on task or off. There might be a synthesis that amounts to what Anderson calls 'mindful distraction.' " That's what I was struggling to express above: thinking is thinking; subjecting it to binary categorizations does injustice to how it actually works and leads to unnecessary and useless prescriptions for how to provoke thinking of a certain type.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chitchat and tittle-tattle (24 June 2009)

Here's something suited to Nicholas Carr's Realtime Chronicles, from a chapter near the end of New Grub Street. Failed author and up-and-coming literary agent Whelpdale presents his idea for a new journal to his friend, the cynical hack journalist Milvain and his sister.
'I want to find a capitalist,' he said, 'who will get possession of that paper Chat, and transform it according to an idea I have in my head. The thing is doing very indifferently, but I am convinced it might be made splendid property, with a few changes in the way of conducting it.'

'The paper is rubbish,' remarked Jasper, 'and the kind of rubbish -- oddly enough -- which doesn't attract people.'

'Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. I have talked to the people about it again and again, but I can't get them to believe what I say. Now just listen to my notion. In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat I should call it Chit-Chat!'

Jasper exploded with mirth.

'That's brilliant!' he cried. 'A stroke of genius!'

'Are you serious? Or are you making fun of me? I believe it is a stroke of genius. Chat doesn't attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America. I know I am right; laugh as you will.'

'On the same principle,' cried Jasper, 'if The Tatler were changed to Tittle-Tattle, its circulation would be trebled.'

Whelpdale smote his knee in delight.

'An admirable idea! Many a true word uttered in joke, and this is an instance! Tittle- Tattle -- a magnificent title; the very thing to catch the multitude.'

Dora was joining in the merriment, and for a minute or two nothing but bursts of laughter could be heard.

'Now do let me go on,' implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. 'That's only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this: -- I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.'

'Superb!'

'But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!' exclaimed Dora.

'No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on 'buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information -- bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.'

Jasper had begun to listen seriously.

'There's something in this, Whelpdale,' he remarked.

'Ha! I have caught you?' cried the other delightedly. 'Of course there's something in it?'

'But ----' began Dora, and checked herself.

'You were going to say ----' Whelpdale bent towards her with deference.

'Surely these poor, silly people oughtn't to be encouraged in their weakness.'

Whelpdale's countenance fell. He looked ashamed of himself. But Jasper came speedily to the rescue.

'That's twaddle, Dora. Fools will be fools to the world's end. Answer a fool according to his folly; supply a simpleton with the reading he craves, if it will put money in your pocket. You have discouraged poor Whelpdale in one of the most notable projects of modern times.'

'I shall think no more of it,' said Whelpdale, gravely. 'You are right, Miss Dora.'

Again Jasper burst into merriment. His sister reddened, and looked uncomfortable. She began to speak timidly:

'You said this was for reading in trains and 'buses?'

Whelpdale caught at hope.

'Yes. And really, you know, it may be better at such times to read chit-chat than to be altogether vacant, or to talk unprofitably. I am not sure; I bow to your opinion unreservedly.'

'So long as they only read the paper at such times,' said Dora, still hesitating. 'One knows by experience that one really can't fix one's attention in travelling; even an article in a newspaper is often too long.'

'Exactly! And if you find it so, what must be the case with the mass of untaught people, the quarter-educated? It might encourage in some of them a taste for reading -- don't you think?'

'It might,' assented Dora, musingly. 'And in that case you would be doing good!'

'Distinct good!'

They smiled joyfully at each other. Then Whelpdale turned to Jasper:

'You are convinced that there is something in this?'

'Seriously, I think there is. It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item -- we won't call it article. For instance, you might display on a placard: "What the Queen eats!" or "How Gladstone's collars are made!" -- things of that kind.'

'To be sure, to be sure. And then, you know,' added Whelpdale, glancing anxiously at Dora, 'when people had been attracted by these devices, they would find a few things that were really profitable. We would give nicely written little accounts of exemplary careers, of heroic deeds, and so on. Of course nothing whatever that could be really demoralising -- cela va sans dire.'
So Gissing was onto the idea for USA Today, the free Metro papers, and Twitter all at once, and anticipated the attention-span critique of modern reading habits. Technophiles would point to this probably and argue that it shows that critiques have ever complained thus, and have always been irrelevant alarmists. But I think it shows the inherent tendency of technology toward co-opting our ability to think, which after all can be such an enormous burden to us.

Speed eating (6 May 2009)

More collateral damage from the acceleration and disintegration of social life: At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok links to this Economix post at the NYT site about the relationship between obesity and the time spent eating. This chart tells the story of their possible correlation:
I would assume that this reflects how eating remains more of a social ritual in some cultures rather than a solo refueling mission, as it frequently is in the U.S. It reminds me of my experience in Europe, where I found to my chagrin that the idea of getting coffee to go is practically unheard of. In New York, in my neighborhood, the Greek immigrants sit at the cafes all day and I can't even figure out what could be keeping them there. I find, sadly, that I relate more to the people I see shoving a slice of pizza into their mouths while walking through crowds in Midtown.

But our feeling of perpetually not having enough time seems to rationalize such behavior. Eating quickly, which almost automatically means eating alone, seems a consequence of the enormous pressure we feel to be moving on, consuming more, shrinking the base unit in which we measure the attention we pay so that we have more of it to spend. This need to economize attention (where does this need come from? can it be resisted?) encourages to isolate ourselves so that we may have complete control over our "experience economy". It also prompts us to gird ourselves with gadgetry so that we may streamline our cultural throughput.

Perhaps since Vance Packard and his ilk first made a sensationalized stink about planned obsolescence in the 1960s, it has seemed inherently subversive to slow down or prolong our consumption time. But the time we spent consuming something doesn't seem to be something we can set out to control; it instead seems a byproduct of our engagement with the thing in question, which makes it an insidious target for manipulation. The result is that conscious efforts to slow ourselves down may make us feel intolerably bored with ourselves.