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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Media and Consumer Desire

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 5Historian Neil Harris’s 1978 essay “The Drama of Consumer Desire” (included in this collection) is an attempt to historicize the transformation of consumption into consumerism, tracking how the connections between consumer products and personal identity began to be forged by the beginning of the 20th century. He is mainly concerned with the “works of fiction which placed the buying process within the social experience”: how characters in novels modeled for readers what it meant to be a consumer, and how to derive pleasure from consumption beyond the use value of any particular good.

Novels were part of the larger ideological matrix encompassing all media that performed this function, operating in the face of what was initially a conservative critique that recognized how “mass society” threatened traditional class hierarchies and religious-based notions of what was proper behavior, particularly for those in dominated social positions. (Incidentally, this conservative critique currently lives on in the artisanal fetish, the idea that restricted choice in the market and compulsory manufacture for personal use constitute due penance to be paid for longings for sensual satisfaction and yield experiences that are held to somehow be “more real.” For such critics “reality” is pegged to the traditional limitations placed on experience by one’s social station; the “maker ethos” often disguises a set of sumptuary laws.)

Harris quotes Dreiser’s Sister Carrie to show the elaboration of the emerging “consumer sensibility.”

There is nothing in this world more delightful than that middle state in which we mentally balance at times, possessed of the means, lured by desire, and yet deterred by conscience or want of decision.

This posits the pleasures of consumerism in shopping, not ownership or use. Ownership and use only demystify the goods in question, whereas shopping activates them, brings them to life in the imagination. Moralists have long condemned this enjoyment of the cultural attributes of goods rather than their functionality, but it is a recognition that consumption is social rather than purely private, that shopping, when it expresses identity, plugs people into more fluid, fashion-driven means for having a social presence. It allows consumers to trade traditional circumscriptions on identity for new-fangled ones bound up with the incentives of retailers.

According to Harris’s analysis, this imaginative pleasure in shopping emerges directly from capitalist competition, which prompts retailers to devise new ways to create rather than satisfy demand. As retailers tried to compete on the level of the brand, appeals were made to consumers on the level of how they feel about buying something, urging them to experience shopping itself as more pleasurable, more convenient, more fulfilling, more distinctive.

Driven by keener competition, shop owners now realized how crucial was eye appeal to retailing success … In place of merely showing goods, stores were displaying tableaus and pictures suggesting locale, mood, or historic incident. Captivated by such pictures, customers stopped, to purchase their ideals of fantasy as well as the specific commodity.

This move detaches “consumer demand” from any kind of organic basis and makes it wholly malleable, manipulatable. This not only prompts retailers to try to manufacture desire; it also liberates consumers from the belief that their traditional place in society has totally conditioned their desire and set certain “natural” limits on it. Instead anyone can and should want whatever can be made to seem desirable. The nature of desire changes, from a desire to epitomize one’s station to a desire for novelty and self-elaboration, in terms of the traits that can be read out of goods.

Such self-elaboration means constant testing of one’s self-image against society’s reactions, since the traditional criteria have been discarded. Hence, part of consumption becomes display of that consumption, as its purpose is not to sate some eternal, intrinsic material need but to express something new about the person you want to be. Consumption as consumerism produces an image of the self, stages a performance and an audience evaluation.

In other words, media becomes central to consumption: One is only consuming in consumer society if it is conspicuous. There is no such thing as inconspicuous consumption.

Harris notes the importance of cinema’s advent to “enhancing the social role of consumer goods,” not merely by glamorizing them but simply by demonstrating how they could be deployed to signify qualities about characters and situations.

The image on the movie screen inevitably focused attention on the objects which formed part of its decor. The lingering closeups, the use of music to emphasize mood, the employment of objects and sets as significant aspects of plot and character development, all emphasized the sensuous properties of what might have been seen, more casually, as mundane artifacts, hardly deserving of sustained attention.

As a result, movies (like novels had before them, but with more immediacy) habituated viewers to “examining the surfaces, shapes, and dimensions of objects with new interest.” Movies made people “read” consumer goods, which taught them how to write with them as well.

Through such representations, mediated consumption becomes the standard form of consumerism, and the desire for objects becomes melded with the desire for attention. Thus, consumption generally stimulates a demand for more and more media with which to broadcast it. This has culminated for now in the proliferation of social media, which function as means to broadcast consumerist desire, whether or not the consumption takes place in material terms. As Harris’s analysis suggests, all media serve to make consumption productive; social media extend that productivity to the furthest point yet.

What emerges from this process of mediating consumption is the association of goods with a variety of inferable attributes, affective states, spiritual overtones, and the like. Mediating consumption makes it have signifying capabilities; once that is established it only remains for audiences to negotiate the specific meanings in various contexts. Mediation establishes what Baudrillard called “the code” and mediating the self, linking it to goods as signs, assimilates our identity to the code, making it another sign among signs. As Harris puts it, goods move from “expressions of status to guarantors of identity” as the act of consumption becomes more intensively mediated.

As the mediation of consumption has intensified, it has become increasingly immaterial. Once, consumerism as a system hinged on the idea that you had to buy the physical goods to try to stabilize those goods’ particular meanings for yourself. (Jean-Christophe Agnew’s essay about the “acquisitive gaze” makes that case; I discussed that here.) But social media allow for such stabs at stabilization through appropriation rather than purchasing. You can mediate your shopping without consuming anything more than images, available for free. As the pleasures of shopping are mainly found in access to the social, indications that you belong to the network can replace the implied social pleasures that ownership of goods once provided. We want to consume the signs of our social relevance, our belonging, more than we want to consume or own stuff. Images of stuff can be valorized by circulating them; they need no original use cases as real stuff to establish their potential value. (This may mean that what Pop Art anticipated has come to pass, that all consumable stuff becomes art when mediated and subjectified, at least if you take art to mean something that is desirably useless.)

For the novelists Harris examines, the transformation of shopping into performance was lamentable, an indication that “consuming is one of the few art forms left to individuals; their expression of purpose and self must be in terms of what they can buy, for there is no other standard of value.” But that view seems less pernicious, less tragic, when you change “what they can buy” to “what they can appropriate.” Mediated consumption makes explicit the latent creativity in trying to wrestle pleasure out of the things of this world and out of the potential connections we might form with others through those things. That we must mediate our relations with others though these networks, these performances, these things, is perhaps a different problem, not to be blamed on the supposedly intrinsic inadequacies of the art of appropriation itself.

 

 

The Acquisitive Gaze

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1. In its early mission statement, Pinterest described itself as primarily a social network that was “connecting people all over the world based on shared tastes and interests.” But as the site grew, it became more clear that users were less interested in being connected to people than to stuff itself. Now Pinterest describes itself as “a place to discover ideas for all your projects and interests, hand-picked by people like you.”

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Recent reports that Pinterest intends to introduce a “Buy” button suggest that the site is not content to let users rest with “discovering ideas” but instead would like to convert idea-discovery into a mere precursor for purchases rather than an end in itself.

Pinterest has emerged as a para-retailing apparatus for “social shopping,” in which users add value for retailers by organizing consumer desire into various moods and themes on boards. Some users have been able to earn commissions through this work, but Pinterest has moved to suppress third-party marketing links in advance of its “buy button,” which will reserve commissions for that platform itself.

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2. In certain ways, Pinterest’s move to disenfranchise users is an attempt to protect its status as a forum for a kind of self-expression that reads as “authentic.” If users profit by their curation, it detracts from the “authenticity” of their desire, making it seem mercenary. At the heart of Pinterest’s viability is its reputation as a space of genuine consumer desire: The pinner’s sincerity is what generates the economic value of the act of pinning, what allows the construction of boards to add associative value to the objects pinned. It allows pinning to appear as something other than just an obvious form of word-of-mouth marketing.

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3. Pinterest built its user base by seeming to offer a space that allowed an escape from the creeping imperative that users produce original content for social media sites (for free). It seemed to allow us to be straightforward consumers again, finding “inspiration” instead of the demand to build out a personal brand through our innovation and creativity.

Early on, the site was critiqued for failing to afford a space for rich personal expression. Sociologist Bon Stewart argued in 2012 that Pinterest, since it explicitly discourages self-promotion and relies entirely on the appropriation of someone else’s creative expression, turns curation into passive consumerism; it allows for the construction and circulation of a bland sanitized identity. “Its express purpose,” she wrote, “is to free us from the awkwardness of self-expression and keep us safely in the realm of the pre-chewed, the market-filtered.”

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4. But it’s not that Pinterest prohibits self-expression; it limits self-expression to the surface of found images, which are organized and deployed to convey one’s aspirations or moods or desires or ingenuity. This mirrors the processes of consumerism generally, in which mass-market products are bought and consumed not merely for their use value but for what they can be seen to be saying about the sort of person you want to seem to be. Vast ideological apparatuses are employed to teach us how to read out of images the various characteristics and attributes and traits (“beauty,” “cool,” “fashionability,” “cleanliness,” “health,” etc.) we seek to embody ourselves.

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5. In “The Consuming Vision,” an essay about novelist Henry James, of all things, Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that the consumerist culture emerging in James’s time was a “world constructed by and for a consuming vision,” an “imagined world … in which imagination itself strives to gild, glaze, and ultimately commodify its objects.” This consuming vision becomes hegemonic in a world that comes to be seen as made entirely of commodities. “What modern consumer culture produces,” Agnew argues, “is not so much a way of being as a way of seeing — a way best characterized as visually acquisitive. In short, modern consumer culture holds up the cognitive appetite as the model and engine of its reproductive process.”

Agnew points out that the churn of markets assures that these sorts of characteristics are never stable in any given commodity or experience. Consumerism posits such meanings as free-floating, redeployable, highly contingent and not intrinsic to a good’s use value. (Soap might make me objectively clean, but will it make me feel clean, which is ultimately more important?)

Thus those meanings are always socially determined to a degree, and always require further labor to affix them to goods. Advertising has traditionally served the purpose of attaching the affective associations with products; social media now enlists the members of one’s social networks to assist in this process. We aid in the building of such ad hoc associations between feelings and goods (we are “prosuming,” making our consumption productive of symbolic meaning by broadcasting it), but this serves also to reinforce that the overall sense that the meanings are applied and withdrawn at social whim.

Pinterest is geared toward stimulating this acquisitive appetite for images without sating it. Every pin we post is not merely self-expression, but a useful amount of taxonomic and organizational labor that enriches the value of Pinterest’s network as a whole, as well as the specific goods pictured and classified and invested with new potential meanings. It remains productive, even if that productivity is masked from the producer. Consumerism is not ever passive, if passive is meant as the opposite of creative or expressive; rather it offers a coherent system for expressing the self through commodities. But it comes at the expense of the possibility of an uncommodified self.

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6. As Agnew pointed out, the meaning of the images circulating as signs are unstable; Pinterest intensifies this instability. When we can’t know for sure what contexts we are getting with a particular good — when we don’t know how long it will continue to signify what we believe it does at this moment — we may become filled with an anxious need to try to do something to shore those meanings up, to salvage our investment in certain goods.

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7. Agnew: “Under such conditions, it is extraordinarily difficult to sort out needs and wants. One motive that an advertisement or commercial can be said to call out in every instance is a cognitive one: the desire to master the bewildering and predatory imperatives of the market by an acquisitive or possessive gesture of mind. Here, cultural orientation becomes one with cultural appropriation.”

Pinterest speaks to that “possessive gesture of mind” by which we seek to fix the meanings of things, and in the process fix the nature of our desires, of who we are trying to become. Literal digital appropriation becomes a means to generating a sense of orientation in a culture in which everything that is solid melts into air, as Marx famously declared: “Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Only that moment of sober clarity never comes because we keep ourselves inebriated on images; we keep busy pinning things.

More than just affording us serial opportunities to try to pin down the meanings of things, Pinterest invites us to view all the images the internet offers as advertisements. We are asked to scrutinize them for the bundle of affects they might contain, and then to perform the work that will liberate those qualities and allow them to circulate more freely as detached signifieds. It permits us to let an accumulative, shopping mentality govern everything we do online.

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8. Consumerism once limited this sort of self-expression to what one can afford. But with Pinterest, users can simulate the acquisition of things and experience similar gratification. Pinterest’s great advance seems to be that it lets users shop for images over the sprawl of the internet, turning it into a endless visual shopping mall in which one never runs out of money. And because it is virtual, no one has to “wastefully consume” products that they want merely for the status implications. It allows for, in Nathan Jurgenson’s phrase, “consumerism without consumption.”

Writing at the Atlantic, Chris Tackett went so far as to argue that sites like Pinterest are actually “anti-consumerist” because they allow people the instant gratification of choosing things without actually having to buy them or spend much time on the fantasy of it. Rather than a deep and protracted engagement in the consumerist drama of how a product will change you or convey something integral yet new about you, Pinterest allows you to culminate the appropriation efficiently and move on.

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9. Pinterest users can simply add desired goods to a board and instantaneously indulge the fantasy that some part of the site’s user base will see it and draw the appropriate conclusions. The gesture immediately circulates. This fantasy need not climax with a purchase or seek appropriate occasions to display it. And it need not be terminated by the disillusionment that comes with actual ownership, when an affectively inert thing takes its place amid the mounting slag pile of one’s emotionally spent objects — objects that no longer say anything about you and have become merely useful at best, objects that sit there taunting you with your discarded ideas of who you were trying to be, and for whom, and when.

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10. On Pinterest, there are apparently no such physical stakes, no contexts that are fixed at a point of purchase and then outgrown; one can keep on pinning and never know the disillusionment of possession. The evidence of how one’s pins circulate amid unanticipated contexts will continue to trickle in, authorizing new fantasies about the self and what your pin might mean to these strangers, in the alien context of their pinboards. Algorithmically driven recommendations of “related pins” further recontextualize one’s pinning gestures, dismantling any pretense of their uniqueness and situating every image within an ocean of similar images, as seen from the point of view of the machine.

These ways that one’s pins are processed seem to invite you to leave the game of conspicuous consumption and enter into the game of virality. Who you are — the revealed nature of your identity — can become less a matter of what you try to specifically communicate with your selected pins but how widely those pins are promulgated, and by whom.

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11. Perhaps that is what Tackett meant by calling Pinterest “anticonsumerist.” But by overcoming the sources of friction inhibiting users from shopping — financial limits, the lack of occasion for conspicuous display — Pinterest accelerates users’ cycling through consumerist fantasies, bringing on what might be seen as hyperconsumerism. The affordances of Pinterest demand that we never stop shopping. We can be continually signifying identity with images, without limit, with an audience for these gestures always implicitly present.

Pinterest unleashes unlimited sign production, laying the basis for unlimited aspiration among users. The more you pin to express yourself, the more your self-expression becomes tentative and incomplete, contingent on all the other signs interlaced with one another within Pinterest’s web.

That is, Pinterest allows for the purest expression of what Jean Baudrillard called the “passion for the code” that we’ve yet seen. We accumulate and sort images, trying to extract their essences, and in the process reduce ourselves to a similar image, a similar agglomeration of putative qualities that can be read out of a surface. We become images ourselves rather than one speaking through them. Pinterest may turn words into images, but on Pinterest, users are obliged to use images as words.

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12. Pinterest encourages the fantasy of solitary self-creation, with the assessing audience always assumed to be present but at a remove, available on one’s own terms, as free as the images proliferating online. But by building in immediate public display into every consumerist fantasy, into every desire to express personality through consumer choices, Pinterest undermines the idea that solitary fantasizing might also be considered private. The efficacy of the fantasy comes to depend entirely on social validation rather than the potency of the personal imagination.

Any activity that online media platforms succeed in rendering “social” ultimately ends up being depersonalized, drained of spontaneity and injected instead into the ongoing collective elaboration of the code.

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13. Pinterest gets to the heart of the ambivalence of so-called social shopping. Making things “social” is supposed to lend the stability of one’s social network to the contexts of consuming, but instead multiplies the instability of meaning, raises the cognitive calculations involved in what a good might possibly mean another exponential level. Pinning something on Pinterest plots that desire on a “social graph” that has countless dimensions, so the clarity one might have hoped the gesture would bring is immediately invalidated and must be reiterated in an endless string of corrective amendments, additional pinnings to further clarify what we really mean to communicate, to further demonstrate our tastes of the moment, to further clarify who we are.

Collector’s Item

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I am in the process of moving, which entails packing up my record collection, and confronting some awkward questions about why I even have one. The collection is not about the music: I don’t own a single record that I don’t also have in digital form on an array of hard drives and triple-redundant backups. And though I am as prone as anyone to fetishize the “warm” sound of real vinyl, I’m also self-aware enough to be skeptical of my own ears. Plus, down that road leads to things like obsessive fretting about which plants the records were manufactured at and the need to get “hot pressings” to hear how the recording should “really” sound. For me, MP3s are basically fine.

Beyond that, the collection’s bulk makes it incredibly inconvenient, though therein may lie its actual appeal. The inconvenience enchants the act of listening, enchants my labor in assembling the collection. Inconvenience triggers nostalgia, particularly since “progress” tends to be understood in terms of efficiency. The cumbersome nature of putting on a record and then flipping it over conjures all sorts of other lost experiences — dialing rotary phones, looking things up in books, etc. Listening then becomes a journey into a romanticized, half-remembered past from which tedium, frustration, and disappointment have been edited out. And if the record skips, I can always play the song on my phone.

But is that nostalgia enough to justify all the moving boxes? All the packing and unpacking? The collection has become a physical manifestation of sunk costs; it makes me feel like I have come too far to stop now.

Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” is sort of the canonical account of collector-hood, but I am put off a bit by his talk of “real libraries” and being a “genuine collector.” Much of what he says about collecting books is echoed by Jean Baudrillard in The System of Objects, only Baudrillard makes it all pejorative. Collectors “invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them,” he writes. They “never … get beyond a certain poverty and infantilism.” (Benjamin, by contrast, rhapsodizes that “to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age.”) Benjamin celebrates the “harmonious whole” of a collection; Baudrillard sees this harmony as pathological escapism.

No matter how open a collection is, it will always harbor an irreducible element of non-relationship to the world. Because he feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself.

If this holds for gestures of digital appropriation, it may shed light on Pinterest and Tumblr usage. Although it may seem a bit counterintuitive to view social media this way, posting images and linking them to your profile can be seen as an effort to transcend social judgment, flying in the face of the metrics that want to make it inescapable. On your own Tumblr, you get to be a taste tyrant; each new post supports the fantasy that you can dictate the rules of style for yourself by fiat, beyond the encroachment of cultural-capital anxieties. The mere process of adding another image (rather than the judicious choice of some specific content) can be the means by which you push aside the fear that your choices may be governed by a social logic beyond your control. Any specific item, evaluated on its own, immediately calls forth social standards of evaluation, but the process of accumulation itself is beyond judgment — particularly under capitalism, where only accumulation can be for its own sake.

The metrics, from this point of view, are there to prompt you to try negate them with additional content. Alternatively, one could treat low numbers as proof that one has successfully checked out of the numbers game, regarding objective nonpopularity as a sign of one’s indifference to it.

For Baudrillard, collecting is a way to sustain desire in the face of inevitable death, a way to escape time. “What man gets from objects is not a guarantee of life after death but the possibility, from the present moment onwards, of continually experiencing the unfolding of his existence in a controlled, cyclical mode, symbolically transcending a real existence the irreversibility of whose progression he is powerless to affect.” Collecting allows collectors to turn lost time to cyclical time, subordinating serial acquisition to spatial ordering. And because the collection signifies the collector, it lets collectors “recite themselves, as it were, outside time.”

Baudrillard claims that “what you really collect is always yourself.” Thus he, like Benjamin, argues that possessing objects stands in opposition to actually using them. Any collection tends toward forbidding actual use: think the comic-book collector whose items are rated and sealed in plastic, or the record collector who is afraid to ruin the vinyl by playing it. One collects objects to purge them of their usefulness, subordinate that use value to the curatorial logic that the collector applies so that any collected object signifies only the collector.

But once you start signifying yourself with what you collect, you are consigned to always be collecting:

An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject, but in the passionate abstractness of possession all objects are equivalent. And just one object no longer suffices: the fulfillment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects. This is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time: a whole series lies behind any single object, and makes it into a source of anxiety.

I don’t like to admit to myself that I collect records to stabilize my sense of my own identity, and I try to resist the seductive idea that my taste is autonomous, that it makes me unique. Despite how real that feels — no one else has this same weird collection of records as me! — I try to counter that tendency, resocialize my understanding of my taste. I want to demystify my own sense of individuality, collect my way out of the impulse to keep collecting. I want to exempt myself from the problem of being authentic, being unique — a losing proposition, self-hypocratizing. I want to defy individuality only because it seems like a nonconformist thing to do.

Boris Groys, in this passage from On the New, suggests that what’s worse than striving for authenticity is regarding yourself as inherently authentic. 

In many respects, contemporary man is a victim of the theory of original difference. He has been poisoned by the suggestion that, in the absence of all effort, he is already unique, different from all other men at a certain extra-cultural, authentic level of life. That is why he feels a certain frustration attendant upon the inevitable realization of his actual, insurmountable cultural banality.

To escape one’s cultural banality, Groys suggests, one must “work professionally in the cultural field.” Collecting things is a way to pretend to that status, especially if one approaches it not as a connoisseur but as a speculator in cool. I find that when I go to record stores, I get caught up in such games of aesthetic arbitrage. When I go record shopping I tend to only look in bargain bins. These are the records that have been deemed uncollectible, beneath serious notice. Will Straw, in “Exhausted Commodities: The Material Culture of Music,” argues that this built-up sediment of unwanted culture demystifies collectibles in general:

In the ways in which they accumulate, and in the fact that they sit there, unsold, these commodities contradict the definition of the commodity as a signifier of social desire.

The bargain-bin records are, in Groys’s terminology, the “profane,” the cultural material that is the opposite of art, the opposite of what is accepted in the official archive of relevant, memorable, interpretable culture. They are socio-cultural refuse.

To me, these records represent a cultural opportunity to buy low, a chance for me to assert myself in a territory revealed by the receding tide of fashion. By finding “good” records among the refuse, I get to assert a taste I know is highly idiosyncratic (In buying these Linda Ronstadt records, I am choosing something the contemporary market has rejected), and I wager on my own social influence (I will redeem these rejected Linda Ronstadt albums, and when they come back in style, I will have been there all along and can imagine I played some small role in revitalizing them.) And even if what I buy never becomes popular again, I can console myself with the proof of my uniqueness. (Until I remember how banal it is.)

Only in the bargain bins can I shop comfortably, knowing that I am not coattail-riding on someone else’s cultural capital, not following someone else’s fashion. Instead I can pretend both that I am both exercising my sovereign judgment and am indifferent to the whole game of taste, and also fully invested in the game and taking a savvy position within it, letting my taste be wholly guided by tactical positionality within it. When necessary, I can tell myself I have no taste at all — only timely, economically incentivized moves within fashion cycles. I can’t be held responsible for “really” liking anything! I am safely opaque.

Something similar happens, perhaps, in seeking virality in social media. The more apparently it seems that something was posted “just for likes,” the less it says about one’s “true self.” It’s just strategic, and everyone knows and accepts it as such. The more self-promotion you do, the less it seems you are talking about yourself. You’re just talking in the dialect of accumulation, reading from a shared script for the entrepreneurial self.

Curatorial gestures are likewise an amalgam of strategy and self-expression, with one perpetually permitting disavowal of the other. As with the bargain-bin records, If something I reblog on Tumblr gets reblogged a lot later, I can feel partly responsible and enjoy that success; if it doesn’t, I can congratulate myself for my distinctive taste. The pleasure I take in these things in themselves? That’s the most malleable component in the system, so that gets adjusted accordingly, to accommodate the other pressures.

For Groys, such salvage missions are the essence of cultural innovation, the hallmark of the artist’s function since the time of Duchamp’s ready-mades. Art, he argues, stems not from the creative unconscious or from the technical ability to represent objective beauty or truth but from redrawing the boundary between art and not-art. It comes from understanding “cultural-economic logic” and fashion cycles, and having the social wherewithal to affect them. Craft is more or less discarded, and art becomes indistinguishable from curation, collecting. Once the ubiquity of reproduction (mechanical and now digital) makes technical skill superfluous, a kind of mystified ornament, the only significant artistic medium is the cultural archive itself, and the ability to shift things in and out of it.

But there is nothing particularly special about being archived anymore. Digitization has made the cultural archive itself seem massive and amorphous, limitless, even as it becomes easier to search and exhume things from. Rediscovery, revalorization, devalorization, forgetting: all of it happens more quickly, and with lower stakes, since we all know everything is being saved in the cloud anyway. My puny record collection stands against that limitless digital archive; it’s my private attempt to raise the stakes again, even if only at the level of personal fantasy. I will be lugging that fantasy down three flights of stairs, unless I am willing to entrust it to the movers.

Still, it is hard to imagine that anything will ultimately be left out of the millions of petabytes of data being collected and stored. We’re frequently reminded that our little contributions are important enough to register in it — every time an algorithm tries to predict something about us, we know we are in there. We are already unique ID numbers in these databases, we are all inadvertently de facto “professionals in the cultural field.” That makes it all pretty banal from the human point of view. But big data sees the eternal value in all our curating and collecting, and it will save us all.

 

Permanent Recorder

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 1.15.22 PMIt used to be easy to mock reality TV for having nothing to do with actual reality — the scenarios were contrived and pre-mediated, the performances were semi-scripted, the performers were hyper-self-conscious. These shows were more a negation of reality than a representation of it; part of their appeal seemed to be in how they helped clarify for viewers the genuine “reality” of their own behavior, in contrast with the freak shows they were seeing on the screen. To be real with people, these shows seemed to suggest, just don’t act like you are on television.

But now we are all on television all the time. The once inverted anti-reality of reality TV has turned out to be prefigurative. In a recent essay for the New York Times, Colson Whitehead seizes on the reality TV conceit of a “loser edit” — how a shows’ editors pare down and frame the footage of certain participants to make their incipient failure seem deserved — and expands it into a metaphor for our lives under ubiquitous surveillance.

The footage of your loser edit is out there as well, waiting … From all the cameras on all the street corners, entryways and strangers’ cellphones, building the digital dossier of your days. Maybe we can’t clearly make out your face in every shot, but everyone knows it’s you. We know you like to slump. Our entire lives as B-roll, shot and stored away to be recut and reviewed at a moment’s notice when the plot changes: the divorce, the layoff, the lawsuit. Any time the producers decide to raise the stakes.

Whitehead concludes that the important thing is that everyone gets an edit inside their own head, which suggests that the imposition of a reality TV frame on our lives has been clarifying. “If we’re going down, let us at least be a protagonist, have a story line, not be just one of those miserable players in the background. A cameo’s stand-in. The loser edit, with all its savage cuts, is confirmation that you exist.” Reality TV models for us what it is like to be a character in our own life story, and it gives us a new metaphor for how to accomplish this — we don’t need to be a bildungsroman author but instead a savvy cutting-room editor. Accept that your life is footage, and you might even get good at making a winner’s edit for yourself.

You could draw a similar conclusion from Facebook’s Timeline, and the year-in-review videos the company has taken to making of one’s raw profile data. These aren’t intrusive re-scriptings of our experience but instructional videos into how to be a coherent person for algorithms — which, since these algorithms increasingly dictate what others see of you, is more or less how you “really” are in your social networks. Facebook makes the winner’s edit of everybody, because everyone supposedly wins by being on Facebook. Everyone gets to be connected and the center of the universe simultaneously. So why not bequeath to it final-cut rights for your life’s edit?

Tech consultant Alistair Croll, in post at O’Reilly Radar, is somewhat less complacent about our surrendering our editing rights. He makes the case that since everyone henceforth will be born into consolidated blanket surveillance, they will be nurtured by a symbiotic relationship with their own data timeline. “An agent with true AI will become a sort of alter ego; something that grows and evolves with you … When the machines get intelligent, some of us may not even notice, because they’ll be us and we’ll be them.”

In other words, our cyborg existence will entail our fusion not with some Borg-like hive mind that submerges us into a collective, but with a machine powered by our own personal data that represents itself as already part of ourselves. The algorithms will be learning how to edit our lives for us from the very start, and we may not recognize this editing as stemming from an outside entity. The alien algorithms ease themselves into control over us by working with our uniquely personal data, which will feel inalienable because it is so specifically about us, though the very fact of its collection indicates that it belongs to someone else. Our memories will be recorded by outside entities so thoroughly that we will intuitively accept those entities as a part of us, as an extension of the inside of our heads. Believing that something that is not us could have such a complete archive of our experiences may prove to be to unacceptable, too dissonant, too terrifying.

Croll argues that this kind of data-driven social control, with algorithms dictating the shape and scope of our lives for us, will be “the moral issue of the next decade: nobody should know more about you than you do.“ That sounds plausible enough, if you take it to mean (as Croll clearly does) that no one should use against you data that you don’t know has been collected about you. (Molly Knefel discusses a similar concern here, in an essay about how kids will be confronted by their permanent records, which reminds me of the “right to be forgotten” campaign.) But it runs counter to the cyborg idea — it assumes we will be able to draw a clear line between ourselves and the algorithms. If we can’t distinguish between these, it will be nonsensical to worry about which has access to more data about ourselves. It will be impossible to say whether you or the algorithms “knew” some piece of information about you first, particularly when the algorithms will be synthesizing data about us and then teaching it to us.

In that light, the standard that “no one should know more about you than you do” starts to seem clearly absurd. Outside entities are producing knowledge about us all the time in ways we can’t control. Other people are always producing knowledge about me, from their perspective and for their own purposes, that I can never access. They will always know “more about me” than I do by virtue of their having a point of view on the world that I can’t calculate and replicate.

Because we find it hard to assign a point of view to a machine, we perhaps think they can’t know more about us or have a perspective that isn’t fully controllable by someone, if not us. Croll is essentially arguing that we should have control over what knowledge a company’s machines produce about us. That assumes that their programmers can fully control their algorithms, which seems to be less the case the more sophisticated they become — the fact that the algorithms turn out results that no one can explain may be the defining point at which data becomes Big Data, as Mike Pepi explains here. And if the machines are just proxies for the people who program them, Croll’s “moral issue” still boils down to a fantasy of extreme atomization — the demand that my identity be entirely independent of other people, with no contingencies whatsoever.

The ability to impose your own self-concept on others is a matter of power; you can demand it, say, as a matter of customer service. This doesn’t change what those serving you know and think about you, but it allows you to suspend disbelief about it. Algorithms that serve us don’t allow for such suspension of disbelief, because they anticipate what service we might expect and put what they know about us into direct action. Algorithms can’t have opinions about us that they keep to themselves. They can’t help but reveal al all times that they “know more about us” — that is, they know us different from how we know ourselves.

Rather than worry about controlling who can produce information about us, it may be more important to worry about the conflation of data with self-knowledge. The radical empiricism epitomized by the Quantified Self movement is becoming more and more mainstream as tracking devices that attempt to codify us as data become more prevalent — and threaten to become mandatory for various social benefits like health insurance. Self-tracking suggests that consciousness is a useless guide to knowing the self, generating meaningless opinions about what is happening to the self while interfering with the body’s proper responses to its biofeedback. It’s only so much subjectivity. Consciousness should subordinate itself to the data, be guided more automatically by it.  And you need control of this data to control what you will think of yourself in response to it, and to control the “truth” about yourself.

Reducing self-knowledge to matters of data possession and retention like that seems to be the natural bias of a property-oriented society; as consciousness can’t be represented as a substance than someone can have more or less of, therefore it doesn’t count. But self-knowledge may not be a matter of having the most thorough archive of your deeds and the intentions behind them. It is not a quantity of memories, an amount of data. The self is not a terrain to which you are entitled to own the most detailed map. Self-knowledge is not a matter of reading your own permanent record. It is not an edit of our life’s footage.

A quantified basis for “self-knowledge” is bound up with the incentives for using social media and submitting to increased surveillance of various forms. If we accept that self-knowledge is akin to a permanent record, we will tolerate or even embrace Facebook’s keeping that record for us. Maybe we won’t even mind that we can’t actually delete anything from their servers.

As our would-be permanent recorders, social media sites are central to both data collection (they incite us to supply data as well as help organize what is collected across platforms into a single profile) and the use of data to implement social control (they serve algorithmically derived content and marketing while slotting us into ad hoc niches, and they encircle us in a panoptic space that conditions our behavior with the threat of observation). But for them to maintain their central place, we may have to be convinced to accept the algorithmic control they implement as a deeper form of self-knowledge.

But what if we use social media not for self-knowledge but for self-destruction? What if we use social media to complicate the idea that we could ever “know ourselves”? What if we use social media to make ourselves into something unknowable? Maybe we record the footage of our lives to define therein what the essence of our self isn’t. To the degree that identity is a prison, self-knowledge makes the cell’s walls. But self-knowledge could instead be an awareness of how to move beyond those walls.

Not everyone has the opportunity to cast identity aside any more than they have the ability to unilaterally assert self-knowledge as a form of control. We fall into the trap of trying to assert some sort of objectively “better” or more “accurate” identity that reflects our “true self,” which is only so much more data that can be used to control us and remold the identity that is assigned to us socially. The most luxurious and privileged condition may be one in which you get to experience yourself as endlessly surprising — a condition in which you hardly know yourself at all but have complete confidence that others know and respect you as they should.

Authentic sharing

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“Sharing economy,” of course, is a gratingly inappropriate terms to describe a business approach that entails precisely the opposite, that renders the social field an arena for microentrepreneurship and nothing else. Yet the vestiges of “sharing” rhetoric clings to such companies as Airbnb and a host of smaller startups that purport to build “trust” and “community” among strangers by getting them to be more efficient and render effective customer service to one another. What more could you ask of a friend?

By bringing a commercial ethos to bear on exchanges that were once outside the market, the civilizing process that is often attributed to the “bourgeois virtues” of capitalism — with successful economic exchange building the only form of social trust necessary — gets to spread itself over all possible human relationships. The only real community is a marketplace in which everyone has a fair shot to compete.

The freedom of anonymous commercial exchange amid a “community” of well-connected but essentially atomized strangers well-disciplined by the market to behave conventionally and sycophantically is not the sort of community the sharing companies tend to crow about in their advertising. The rhetoric of the sharing economy’s trade group, Peers, is instead saturated with testimonials of communal uplift and ethical invigoration. In an essay about the cult-like methods of sharing-economy indoctrination, Mike Bulajewski cites many, many examples of the companies’ blather about community and the ornamental techniques they encourage among users to sustain the illusion. (Fist-bump your driver! Neato!) He notes that “What’s crucial to realize is that proponents of “sharing” are reinventing our understanding of economic relations between individuals so that they no longer imply individualism, greed or self-interest” — i.e., the bourgeois virtues, which make for atomized “metropolitan” people whose freedom (such as it is) is protected in the form of anonymity and equal treatment in the marketplace. “Instead,” Bulajewski writes, “we’re led to believe that commerce conducted on their platforms is ultimately about generosity, helpfulness, community-building, and love.”

Is this rhetoric fooling anyone? Marketing professors Giana M. Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi suggest that it is bad for their business. In an article for the Harvard Business Review they recount their research that found that consumers don’t care about “building community” through using services like Airbnb and Lyft; they actually just want cheaper services and less hassle. They want consumerist “freedom,” not ethical entanglements. The platforms are popular because they actually diminish social interaction while letting users take advantage of small-time service providers who are often in precarious conditions and have little bargaining leverage. You “trust” the sharing-platform brand while you exploit the random person offering a ride or an apartment (or whatever) without having to negotiate with them face to face.

When “sharing” is market-mediated — when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other — it is no longer sharing at all. Rather, consumers are paying to access someone else’s goods or services for a particular period of time. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.

That seems almost self-evident. The sharing-economy companies are not a way to temper capitalism (and its tendency to generate selfish individualists); they just allow it to function more expediently. The sharing economy degrades “social value,” defined here as the interpersonal interactions that aren’t governed by market incentives and economistic rationality, in favor or expanding the “utilitarian value” of consumption efficiency, more stuff consumed by more individuals (generating more profit). Utilitarian value is impeded by the need to deal with other humans, who can be unpredictable or have irrational demands.

Eckhardt and Bardhi propose “access economy” as an alternative term to sharing economy. One might presume “access” refers to the way consumers can pay brokering companies for access to new pools of labor and rental opportunities. Think “shakedown economy” or “bribe economy.” Middlemen like Uber who (like an organized-crime racket) achieve scale and can aggressively bypass the law can put themselves in a prime position to collect tolls from people seeking necessary services and the workers who hope to provide them.

But Eckhardt and Bardhi want to use the term to differentiate renting from owning. People are content to buy access to goods rather than to acquire them as property. Viewing the sharing economy from that angle, though, you can almost see why some are beguiled by its communitarian rhetoric. The sharing economy’s labor practices are abhorrent, but we might overlook all that if we think instead of how it liberates us from being overinvested in the meaning of our stuff. Leaving behind consumerist identity presumably could open the space for identity based in “community” (though it would be more accurate to say an identity based on caste, and what services you render).

Renting is very bad for marketers (it’s not “best practices,” the marketing professors note), because people don’t invest any of their identity into brands they merely rent. They don’t commit to them, don’t risk their self-concept on them. “When consumers are able to access a wide variety of brands at any given moment, like driving a BMW one day and a Toyota Prius the next day, they don’t necessarily feel that one brand is more ‘them’ than another, and they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion.” So what marketers want consumers to want is ownership, which puts their identity in play in a more high-stakes way and gives advertisers something to sink their teeth into. Whether or not consumers actually want to own so many things is a different question. Marketers must insist that they know what consumers want (that’s their rationale for their job); the benefits consumers supposedly reap according to marketers are actually just the ideological tenets of marketing.

This helps bring into focus what a true sharing economy — one that discouraged ownership while imposing reciprocal human interaction — might accomplish. Marketers approve of “brand communities” that let isolated people ”share identity building practices with like-minded others,” but little else. That is, in such communities they can “share” without sharing. They can “share” by buying products for themselves.

But with more widely distributed rental opportunities, identity anchored in what one owns can potentially be disrupted. As Eckhardt and Bardhi  write:

When consumers are able to access a wide variety of brands at any given moment, like driving a BMW one day and a Toyota Prius the next day, they don’t necessarily feel that one brand is more “them” than another, and they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion. They would rather sample a variety of identities which they can discard when they want.

If not for the burden of ownership, then, consumers would conceivably try on and discard the identities implied by products without much thought or sense of risk. They would forgo the “brand community” for a more fluid sense of identity. Perhaps they would anchor their identity in something other than products while enjoying the chance to play around with personae, by borrowing and not owning the signifying resonances of products.

Perhaps that alternate anchor for the self could be precisely the sort of “social value” human interaction that exceeds the predictable, programmable exchanges dictated by the market, and its rational and predictable incentives. This is the sort of interaction that people call “authentic.” (Or we could do away with anchors for the self altogether and go postauthentic — have identity only in the process of “discarding” it.)

Companies like Lyft and Airbnb do nothing to facilitate that sort of interaction; indeed they thrive by doing the opposite. (Authenticity marketing, incidentally, does the same thing; it precludes the possibility of authenticity by co-opting it.) They subsume more types of interaction and exchange to market structures, which then they mask by handling all the money for the parties involved. This affords users the chance to pretend to themselves that the exchange has stemmed from some “meaningful” rather than debased and inauthentic commercial connection, all while keeping a safe distance from the other party.

Sharing companies use their advertising to build a sort of anti-brand-community brand community.  Both sharing companies and brand communities mediate social relations and make them seem less risky. Actual community is full of friction and unresolvable competing agendas; sharing apps’ main function is to eradicate friction and render all parties’ agenda uniform: let’s make a deal. They are popular because they do what brand communities do: They allow people to extract value from strangers without the hassle of having to dealing with them as more than amiable robots.

When sharing companies celebrate the idea of community, they mean brand community. And if they appropriate rhetoric about breaking down the attachment to owning goods as a means of signifying identity and inclusion, it’s certainly not because they care about abolishing personal property, or pride in it. It’s because they are trying to sell their brand as an alternative to the bother of actually having to come up with a real alternative to product-based personal identity. They just let us substitute apps and platforms in for the role material goods played. They cater to the same customer desire of being able to access “community” as a consumer good.

The perhaps ineluctable problem is that belonging to communities is hard. It is inefficient. It does not scale. It doesn’t respond predictably to incentives. It takes more work the more you feel you belong. It requires material sacrifice and compromise. It requires a faith in other people that exceeds their commercial reliability. It entails caring about people for no reason, with no promise of gain. In short, being a part of community is a total hassle but totally mandatory (like aging and dying), so that makes us susceptible to deceptive promises that claim to make it easy or avoidable, that claim to uniquely exempt us. That is the ruse of the “sharing economy”—the illusion it crates that everyone is willing to share with you, but all you have to do is download an app.

Meanwhile, the sharing economy’s vision of everyone entrepreneurializing every aspect of their lives promotes an identity grounded in the work one can manage to win for oneself, in the scheming and self-promoting posture of someone always begging for a job. If its vision of the economy comes true, no one would have the luxury to do little sharing-economy tasks on the side but would instead have to do them to survive. And there would be no safety net because there would be no political solidarity to generate it, and many of its functions will have been offloaded to sharing-economy platforms. The result would be less a community of equals exchanging favors than a Hobbesan war of all against all, with the sharing-company Leviathans furnishing the battlefield and washing their hands of the casualties.