Weaponized Consumption

Boycotts and procotts are by now commonplace and predictable, the skirmishes involving a certain fast-food chain being only the latest prominent instance. This got me thinking about the boycotting impulse, particularly when it is aligned with social issues. It seems to reflect the breakdown of public reason. What I have in mind is the situation described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After VirtueUnable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will. Of course, in a consumer society what other form could such action take than marketplace transactions. Perhaps we can describe it as the commodification of public debate. Like war, boycotting is politics by other means. It is weaponized consumption.

Sex Sells the Future

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century world’s fairs were instrumental in transitioning America from an economy of production to one of consumption. Their role in bringing about this shift is fascinating. Here is but one of the more interesting dimensions of this role described by Robert Rydell in World of Fairs: The Century of Progress Expositions:

“Fundamental to this effort was an assault on remaining vestiges of values that were associated with what some historians have called a ‘culture of production.’ To hasten the dissolution of this older emphasis on restraint and inhibition, already under siege by world’s fairs at the beginning of the century and by the steady barrage of advertising that saturated the country during the 1920s, world’s fair builders injected their fantasies of progress with equally heavy doses of technological utopianism and erotic stimulation.”

We’re more familiar with the technological utopianism of the world’s fairs; the manner in which this technological utopianism was alloyed to erotic representations is less commonly noted. For example, Norman Bel Geddes, who famously designed Futurama, the fair’s most popular exhibit, also designed “Crystal Lassies,” “A Peep Show of Tomorrow.” Rydell continues:

“As if to liberate these fantasies from their Victorian moorings, exposition promoters gave increasing prominence to female striptease performances on exposition midways that, by the end of the decade, gave way to fully nude female performers in shows replete with world-of-tomorrow themes.”

Of course, this makes a great deal of sense. Chastity is to sexual desire what thrift is to economic desire. Rydell goes on:

“By suffusing the world of tomorrow with highly charged male sexual fantasies, the century-of-progress expositions not only reconfirmed the status of women as objects of desire, but represented their bodies as showcases that perfectly complemented displays of futuristic consumer durables everywhere on exhibit at the fairs.”

We know sex sells. This is a commonplace in our society. But we often think it operates by association. Pair the model with the car and somehow the attraction to the model will infuse the car. Perhaps. But some marketers appear to have understood the relationship somewhat differently. Eliminate restraint in one domain and you will eliminate it in the other as well.

E Simms Campbell in Esquire, 1939

Tracking the Spread of Technology

The graph below which plots the diffusion of new technologies throughout the twentieth century came to my attention via Derek Thompson’s post at The Atlantic, “The 100 Year March of Technology in One Graph.”

Take a second and click to enlarge the graph. The lines trace the percentage of US households that adopted the technologies in question over time. There’s a lot of information condensed into this chart, and of course, there’s a lot that a chart can’t convey. Below the graph I’ll list a few of the things that caught my attention.

Grap by Visualizing Economics. Click to enlarge.

The first thing to note is that this chart gives us a glimpse at the social history of technology, a dimension of the story of technology that sometimes gets left out. Very often the focus is on the inventors and the process of invention or on the capabilities of a technology and its consequences. But behind each of these lines there is often a very interesting, and very human story. Naturally, this chart doesn’t quite give us those stories, but they do hint at them. (Many of these stories have been told in quite compelling fashion. America Calling by Claude Fischer, for instance, is a well regarded treatment of the social history of the telephone up to 1940.)

This particular chart, however, gives the impression that technologies always track toward almost full saturation of a society. Once invented, they inexorably trend upwards, some more quickly than others. But remember what this particular chart leaves out: the myriad of technologies that fail to achieve widespread adoption and those that are superseded and recede downward toward near extinction. So consider that this chart might also have included cassette players, laser discs, and typewriters.

That said, the far end of the chart does begin to show us a little of this kind of falling off. You’ll notice, for example, that the VCR adoption rate begins to tail off around the year 2000. So too does the telephone. This is not too surprising and we can readily guess at the causes: the appearance of the DVD player and cell phone respectively. Interestingly, the computer also shows a falling off which raises the question of how the “computer” is defined for the purposes of this chart.

As an aside, this reminds us that visual data, of which we are lately so fond, tends to present itself in rather objective, even clinical fashion, but interpretations are already built in to the data.

There are also instances of dips in adoption rates on the way to full saturation. Notably we see dips in the adoption of telephones, electricity, and automobiles. Not surprisingly, the most pronounced of these dips occurred in the early 1930s as the nation entered the Great Depression. This reminds us that economic conditions play an important role in the stories of technology adoption. It also prompts certain questions: why, for example, did telephone adoption dip while radio adoption continued to increase steadily?

The point of the chart — judging by its title, “Consumption Spreads Faster Today” — is to show that technologies are adopted more quickly today than in the past. There seems to be something to this claim; in fact, it feels intuitively commonsensical to us. But at second glance, it seems a bit more complicated than that.

Remember, for starters, the problem of interpretation that is buried below the apparent objectivity of the graph. It would seem, for instance, that the Internet began in the early 1990s, but arriving at this date involves defining out of existence the early history of the Internet which stretches back into the 1970s at least. Also, several earlier technologies — the radio, the refrigerator, the color TV —  appear to rise as precipitously in adoption rate as more recent technologies.

Interesting as well are the rather languid adoption rates for certain “time-saving” household technologies such as the  clothes washer (but not the clothes dryer) and the dishwasher. By contrast, the microwave enjoys a rather steep rate of adoption. This recalls Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s classic work in the social history of technology, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, in which she dismantled the assumption that the introduction of modern household technologies radically unburdened the average housewife.

This chart, then, is chiefly valuable for what it points to: the fascinating social history of technology. It’s a history that is often forgotten, but one whose consequences we all share in. In America Calling, Fischer sums up:

“Inventors, investors, competitors, organized customers, agencies of government, the media, and others conflict over how an innovation will develop. The outcome is a particular definition and a structure for the new technology, perhaps even a “reinvention” of the device. The story could always have been otherwise if the struggles had proceeded differently.”

Selling the Future

Again, from Laura Burd Schiavo’s “Modern Design Goes Public” in Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s:

“From their start, expositions were meant to incite consumer desire.”

The evolution of display techniques:

“In pavillions dedicated to the display of goods, exhibits showcased row upon row of clocks, glassware, and, as industrial production heated up, pyramids of ketchup bottles and other mass produced goods, as well as the machines that made them possible.”

“By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, displays had become more sophisticated, advancing from showcasing product to demonstrating production. The ultimate express of this trend came at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, where Henry Ford installed an assembly line that churned out as many as twenty-five Model Ts a day.”

“During the 1920s and 1930s corporations were involved in the development of an increasingly sophisticated public relations strategy … World’s fairs became prime venues for designers to experiment with how design innovation could visually and viscerally dramatize the promise of industrial capitalism … they sought to provide innovative and engaging exhibits that shared a vision of the future, a sense of the power and promise of industry, and an image of the place of consumers in that world.”

Compare Walter Benjamin’s comments on the Paris expositions of the late nineteenth century:

“The world exhibitions glorified the exchange-value of commodities. They created a framework in which their use-value receded into the background. They opened up a phantasmagoria into which people entered in order to be distracted. The entertainment industry made that easier for them by lifting them to the level of the commodity. They yielded to its manipulations while savouring their alienation from themselves and from others.”

Test driving Fords on the "Road of Tomorrow" (NY 1939)

Teachers, Resistance is Futile

Related to the last post, a friend passed along a link this afternoon to a story in the NY Times about a school district in North Carolina that is having notable success implementing technology in the classroom. Here’s a representative passage:

“Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: they correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can.

Many classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation. Rather than tell her 11th-grade English students the definition of transcendentalism one recent day, Katheryn Higgins had them crowd-source their own — quite Thoreauly, it turned out — using Google Docs. Back in September, Ms. Higgins had the more outgoing students make presentations on the Declaration of Independence, while shy ones discussed it in an online chat room, which she monitored.”

Yes, you read that correctly. He did write “quite Thoreauly.” As unfortunate as that line may be, it’s not the most disturbing:

“Many students adapted to the overhaul more easily than their teachers, some of whom resented having beloved tools — scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum — vanish. The layoffs in 2009 and 2010, of about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, helped weed out the most reluctant, Mr. Edwards said; others he was able to convince that the technology would actually allow for more personal and enjoyable interaction with students.”

Once more, the layoffs “helped weed out the most reluctant.”

I’m far from suggesting that there is never a time to let go of incompetent teachers, but it seems to me that this is a net that is just as likely to snare competent teachers as incompetent ones.

The message in this case seems clear: resistance is futile, I believe is the line. It rather reminds me of the motto of the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair which I stumbled upon recently — “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms”.

So it would seem, at least as this writer presents the case.