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by Rob Horning

17 Aug 2005

All hail the iPod. How did we ever know ourselves before we had this technological “window into our souls”? This Washington Post story reminds me just how much we should be grateful for the iPod for serving as a useful device in which to record our memories. Says one iPodder: “You’re making a little collection of emotions and memories for yourself and you stick them all in this little machine and you carry it around with you wherever.” Who needs a brain if you have an iPod? And who has memories that aren’t encapsulated in a pop song? Whose entire life hasn’t been like a montage scene, like in 90210, where the characters have wordless fun in two-second snippets while Sixpence None the Richer plays?

And anyway, what good are memories if they are not indexed to pop songs and cataloged on a portable device? We want to be able to carry our fondest moments with us (and even access them randomly! Hurray for shuffle play! My life wasn’t nearly random enough before this wonderful tenchnology. I wish I could hire someone to shuffle my furniture while I’m at work. It’s so frustrating to go home to the same old arrangement.) And having them tied more tightly to pop songs makes my remembrances that much easier for advertisers to exploit. So a song that made me fall in love with my girlfriend could be used to help me fall in love with a car. Who doesn’t want to fall in love? The iPod can help me fall in love over and over again. God bless Apple!

The story reports that “In the upcoming book iPod, Therefore I Am, part memoir, part valentine, the English journalist Dylan Jones writes: “The big thing about the iPod, I thought, was the way in which it forces you to listen to your life in a different way.” That is so true. I was listening to my life through a jelly jar pressed up against my television set, but now the iPod has changed all that. Now I can hear songs I didn’t remember liking, at any given moment. The iPod does the thinking for me. It’s wonderful! Can I get it to pick out my dinner from a menu? Can I get it to shuffle my wardrobe?

Do you remember the first time you heard “Witchita Lineman”? What a golden memory. Yeah, that song was never trendy, not even when Urge Overkill covered it. The other day, when I was in my fifth rep at the gym and my iPod played that really kickass song by Coldplay, the one where he whines, I thought, God, how relaxing is this! Thank you, iPod, for teaching me some more about myself, all those important things I forgot.

According to Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and the Self at MIT, where she teaches the psychology of the relationship between people and machines, “The iPod is a very powerful identity technology… a reflection of who we are as people, a way of seeing ourselves in the mirror of the machine,” she says. An important reminder: Having an identity requires technology. The notion of being obsessed with one’s own identity is a relative recent innovation. Before techology we were content to develop our sense of self through our interactions with other people and through the functions we actually performed in our community. But thankfully we have machines to isolate us from communities and permit us to construct a self based on our adolescent memories and fantasies. Technology filters out the troublesome opinions of other people, and lets us be exactly who we want to be with no regard to reality.

What is so nauseating about stories like these, aside from their being free advertising, is that they prop up lifestyle consumption; they function only to help you rationalize a purchase or make you feel like it is absolutely necessary to buy something to fit in with the zeitgeist. The more articles like this that run, the more it becomes anamolous that one doesn’t have an iPod; the more I time I have to spend explaining why I don’t have one and don’t want one, questions I never really wanted to answer, because in answering them I sound like one of the self-righteous downshifters mentioned below. Can’t people enjoy their technology in peace? Why do newpapers have to whip them up into a frenzy of self-congratulation for using technology, if it’s already supposed to be so great as it is, due to its own functionality? That so much ink is spilled trying to remind us about the wonders of technology should be enough to tell us just how inconsequential it really is. Not only that, but it remakes your sense of self in its own image—we become dependent on machines to even know who we are; we are what the machines permit us to be and nothing more. What a cause for celebration.

by Rob Horning

17 Aug 2005

I finished reading Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American last night and found myself annoyed by her description of “downshifters,” people who self-consciously cut back on their consumption and live in places such as Seattle which allegedly facilitate a simpler lifestyle, where people pay less attention to positional goods and restrain emulative spending. Written in the mid-1990s for the mass market, the book felt a bit dated, and nowhere more than in the section on “downshifters.” Didn’t these people have anything else to worry about than their own budget? Confronted with the current American political situation, it’s hard to image such compacency, where the only thing to worry about was making a political decision to drink fewer lattes. No wonder the right-wing coup succeeded.

What’s frustrating is that the people Schor describes are doing the things that I generally believe to be the right things—spend less, ignore status goods, organize processes to help neighbors share things, waste less, etc.—but as Schor describes them, they come across as self-involved ninnies who want a pat on the back for saving money and expect our sympathy when they turn down meals at expensive restaurants or wait until movies come on cable to watch them. It seems the whole point of curbing consumption is to try to remove yourself from the system by which your place in society is affirmed because of your cosumption choices. It becomes a radical individualist goal, but individualism is what reinforces our current social system. But this goal is probably impossible to achieve, because ultimately spending is always a social activity—its means are determined socially, the ends toward which it is directed are determined socially. Downshifters come across as though they believe they can transcend all this and set up their own rules for society by an individual force of will. Schor wants us to pity them for the sacrifices they make by removing themselves from the mainstream of society, wherein most sociality is fostered by spending and consumption. But by virtue of being singled out for the book’s purposes, they come across as smug holier-than-thou types utterly detached from the larger poltical situations—like people who think because they recycle they have done their part to make a difference, even though recycling achieves virtually nothing, and does nothing to stem the flow of waste and pointless packaging.  (It may in fact rationalize it to an extent.)

The downshifters probably weren’t looking to be congratulated for the example they might set; it just comes across that way in the book. They whine about how hard it is to make sacrifices, which has the effect of making readers think they are blind to what a luxury it is to be able to choose to opt out. They seem ignorant of the many sources of social validation they can retain by virtue of having already had money and status. The lower classes, who have none of the social capital that comes from being raised in a certian class and absorbing their socially approved habits and demeanor (the idea behind Bourdieu’s “habitus”), can’t afford to stop playing the consumption game because it is the only avenue capitalist society offers for gaining status that one isn’t born with; it is the only open route to achieving more social recognition—spending more to make oneself a more significant blip on the social radar. But this ostentatious spending compulsion becomes a lower-class marker itself; moreso as thse above them “downshift” and make their habitus, the thing that can’t be bought, stand out more prominently as the essential class marker.

by Rob Horning

16 Aug 2005

This AP story about a laptop sale in Virginia that became a mad stampede almost has to be exaggerated. “A rush to purchase $50 used laptops turned into a violent stampede Tuesday, with people getting thrown to the pavement, beaten with a folding chair and nearly driven over. One woman went so far to wet herself rather than surrender her place in line.” That sounds pretty bad, but it’s sorely undermined by the next graf: “‘This is total, total chaos,’ said Latoya Jones, 19, who lost one of her flip-flops in the ordeal and later limped around on the sizzling blacktop with one foot bare.” She lost a flipflop? She had to walk on concret barefoot? Oh, the humanity!

But the key quote, the one that’s not merely sensationalistic, is this: “‘It’s rather strange that we would have such a tremendous response for the purchase of a laptop computer—and laptop computers that probably have less-than- desirable attributes,” said Paul Proto, director of general services for Henrico County. “But I think that people tend to get caught up in the excitement of the event—it almost has an entertainment value.’ ” Shopping is indeed its own form of entertainment, independent of what is acquired—it can be as much a captivating psuedo-event as the Super Bowl. The upshot: the product isn’t even important to the act of shopping; shopping frenzies amplify of their own momentum, by the thought that we might be missing out on something someone else is getting. Bargains are exciting not because of the money you might save but because of the scoreboard you are getting on someone else. It underscores the social nature of shopping, the inherent competitiveness of it. In consumer society, our main identity is shopper, and winning trophies in free-for-all sales like these is how we burnish that identity.

by Rob Horning

16 Aug 2005

At Duane Reade, a drug-store chain in New York City, you typically don’t get what anyone would call good customer service. Chronically understaffed, the store often seems to have only one person working the floor—a security guard covering the front door—while one or two clerks try to handle the chaos of customers trying to check out. No lines form, people just mill about and dart in when they see an opportunity. The clerks seem to take a perverse pride in working as slowly as possible, as if an award will be given to the cashier who rings out the fewest on a shift. Besides they get paid the same no matter how few customers they help. Why not go as slow as possible, especially if there is no manager there to tell them to accelerate the pace? The clerks never greet you, they never look you in the eye, they don’t count your change out to you, they don’t say goodbye, and they certainly don’t say “have a nice day.” And for all this they should be applauded.

I’m generally against customer service, which is typically a bogus way of making a shopper feel more important than he really is for an activity that should in no way be thought to dignify him. You shouldn’t expect to be treated like a grandee or a pasha simply because you are buying a few razor blades and a tube of toothpaste. Spending money shouldn’t give you a sense of accomplishment or make you feel important, and after all, that is the ideological function of customer service: to accustom people to receiving social recognition only when they buy something and to make them accept the idea that unless they have money to spend they are invisible in the public sphere. Self-worth becomes a matter of spending power, and it begins to seem that it can’t be derived from any other activity. Other activities won’t be publicly recognized and lauded the way a customer is feted at some chain restaurant, where he is fawned over for eating his fajitas and enjoying his 2-for-1 light beers during happy hour.

Customer service takes the kind of easy-going, friendly exchange that should occur between strangers in free civic space and stages it as a commercial exchange, suggesting that pleasantry must be purchased along with the pack of gum or the bottled water. The consequence of so many people seeing friendliness as a kind of theater, whether because their job prostitutes their inclination to be polite or because they have been pimped to so often as consumers that they have become jaded, may be that they won’t want to perform offstage, they won’t believe in friendliness as a spontaneous reaction to those they share society with. Instead, they’ll tend toward surliness in non-shopping public space, preferring to isolate themselves from all but a few trusted intimates. This suits the commercial world well; isolation breeds vulnerability, and it reinforces the notion that the only place one can find civility is in the shopping mall, on the spending end of a dollar.

Customer service works like human resources departments—they flow fom the same ideological fount, whose principal tenet is that people are functions to be managed; they do not particular qualities and needs. It breeds in chain stores, it erupts wherever management hierarchies are installed. Customer service comes in with wage slavery, when a personal investment in the businesss concern is lost, when only a faceless corporation profits. It is bureaucratized civility; it is what happens when economies of scale affect basic human interactions, leveraging profit motives into mass-produced politeness while obliterating the bona fide item.

Hence, the absence of customer service is a healthy jolt of reality, an almost subversive act of dymystification. You are forced to see the clerk not as an automaton dispensing friendliness on demand but a real person in a shitty job. You are forced to see your purchase for what it is, a simple functional exchange without glamor that imparts no special dignity on you, regardless of what ads try hard to make us believe. A clerk’s rudeness knocks you out of the complacent, compliant role of customer and thrusts you back into a more basic role of responding to what’s really around you. And it undermines the self-centeredness of comsumerism; it affirms that, in contemporary capitalism, the customer is always wrong, always reifying the good things in life, always content to purchase rather than experience pleasure. The anger that many feel at bad customer service is a displaced anger; they are angry at themselves and how their expectations from life have been reduced to such squalid petty demands like a smile on the face of the person who pours their coffee.

And let’s not forget that customer service is often surveillance with a smile. When I worked in a mall bookstore as a teenager, I was told to engage customers to make them know that they were being watched and discourage them from stealing. When I worked in a convenience store I was told to greet every customer, for the same reason, not because I was actually happy to see them, but to make them aware that they are being watched. That’s how customer service is: it uses friendliness as an alibi, a mask for other functions, and reduced to a means, civility no longer can stand as an end in itself.

The end of craven customer service could return some dignity to the world of consumption, something you see hints of in those boutiques and bodegas that have the feeling of doing you a favor by being open at all. You walk in, you are left alone. If you are noticed at all, it will be on a human level, because you’ve been there enough to be recognized, or because you’ve made some real connection with the clerk. To interact with the clerk, you have to talk to him like a human being. The restaurants my neighborhood epitomize this. Often they are privately owned and have character specific to their place. When you earn respect by going to one often enough, the waiters start to acknowledge you and welcome you to the community. It feels real because it’s grounded in actual commitments. Until then, you get your food promptly and efficiently with no fuss or frills. You remain conscious of the fact that you are an outsider, but at least you know that there is something really there, something to become part of after a while. Whereas when you go to the Outback Steakhouse and you are given the suck-up service with a smile, you are made to feel like you belong, but you have to wonder what you belong to, and if that’s a club you really want to be in.

by Rob Horning

15 Aug 2005

As Harvard women’s studies professor Juliet Schor would have it, the real explanation for virtually all our consumption decisions is status, a frightfully shallow motive that we seek to mask from ourselves with a variety of alibis: practicality, utility, quality, thriftiness, personal satisfaction, and so on. People vigorously reject the idea that they consume out of conformity with their neighbors or to send a status message to strangers they permit and expect to judge them. Accepting those motives will blow down the house of cards that has us believing we are all unique individuals with special unique important destinies to fulfull by eating at the Olive Garden and shopping at Wegmans. And more important, it undermines the fragile illusion of personal autonomy that expending our sliver of purchasing power gives us. The crux of the post-war consumer boom lies in this particular realization: consumer choice makes us feel free, while political enfranchisement doesn’t. And when consumer choice turn out to be in fact circumscribed by our status anxieties, it scandalizes out rational mind, which has staked much of our sense of personal freedom and potentiality on the idea that what we buy can really define us and help us fulfill our life mission of realizing an identity.

Assume that there is only so much mental energy people have for maintaining the various illusions necessary to make a worldview cohere. If Schor (who wrote The Overworked American and The Overspent American, ruminations on the ultimately unsatisfying cycle of “work and spend”) is right, the bulk of the ideological energy in America is being spent on these sorts of shopping rationalizations—sapping away the energy necessary to prop up such other macro-illusions as “we live in a democracy” or “my priviacy is protected” or “the government represents me” or “corporations care about me” or what have you, although I suppose preserving the illusion that class is not the defining feature of American life goes a long way toward protecting those other illusions about democracy and freedom. Better to say that all these ideological imperatives (individuality, democracy, privacy, egalitarianism, corporate benevolence) intersect and sustain each other in a seamless web that is woven jointly by advertising, the media, our entertainments, and the logic of our own actions. This web is a psychological safety net, and we have as much invested in it as the politicians and corporations that profit from it at our ultimate expense. We surrender power and insight into the operation of things for the comfort these illusions provide, the illusions of autonomy they afford.

The most alluring myth of the status-free classless society may be the automony it seems to provide—the illusion that what I do has no impact on others and is not impacted by what others do, which, incidentally, is an illusion that leads many social causes founder. Not worrying about the environment stems from the same ideological fiction that has us believing we don’t really care about what our neighbors are driving. But of course we do worry about both things, often in moments we try to hide from ourselves or repress—the high value we place on individuality tars conformist consumerism and social activism with the same brush, makes them appear equally craven sell-outs of our divine right and duty to do whatever the hell we want. The companies that profit by consumerism know how to take advantage of that—they provide channels in which conusmers can vent their defiance at conformity—it contrives ways that permit them to think they are rebelling while conforming. Social crusaders—people who want to end resource wasting and global warming and animal abuse and so on—have figured out a way to make their causes seem like expressions of individual autonomy.

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