Posts Tagged ‘ consumption ’

Theater Review: R.U.X. (Rockwell Universal Sexbots)

R.U.X. (Rockwell Universal Sexbots), written by Maurice Martin and directed by Sun King Davis, was first written and performed as a charity effort to raise money for HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive); it ran as a five-part serial in Arlington’s October 2011 Hope Operas. It was rewritten as a full play for DC’s 2012 Fringe Festival, where it took the award for best comedy. The show just finished up a brief encore at Fall Fringe. While this comedy has already been widely and positively reviewed by DC theater critics, it deserves a piece that engages its rather weighty themes.

The story takes place in near-future America (similar in setting to the spate of early twenty aughts robot films such as Bicentennial Man, A.I., and I, Robot), where anthropomorphic robots have become a common consumer product. Louis Rockwell Jr. (John Tweel) has just been made acting CEO of the Rockwell Universal Carebots company, after his father (Frank Mancino) fell into a coma. Louis Jr. has a new vision that would transition the company away from producing robots designed for childcare and, instead, move it into designing robots for—you guessed it—sex. After rebranding the company “Rockwell Universal Sexbots,” he hires Dr. Callie Veru (Aubri O’Connor), a young and romantically inexperienced software expert to program the robots with the capacity to fulfill human desire. To program robots to respond to human desire, however, the characters must first understand it, and this interrogation of human desire becomes the axis on which the entire plot rotates. Continue reading

Notes on Virno, the Multitude, and the Web

Labor and non-labor develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning. From the point of view of “what” is done and “how” it is done, there is no substantial difference between employment and unemployment. It could be said that: unemployment is non-remunerated labor and labor, in turn, is remunerated unemployment. -Virno (Grammar of the Multitude, p. 103)

I’m deep into my second comprehensive exam, so I’m going to self-servingly post some notes on various things I’m reading. (Feedback is most welcome.) Though Paulo Virno only mentions the Web once in In Grammar of the Multitude (p. 43), the four lectures that comprise the book are of deep relevance to the political economy of social media, particularly in situating them in the broader historical trend toward post-Fordist production.

Let’s start by unpacking that phrase “post-Fordism.” Fordism refers to Henry Ford’s innovations in assembly line production in his automotive plants. The assembly line had profound social consequences in that it made the tasks of each worker so repetitive and simplified that anyone could do them. That is to say, the assembly line created a de-skilled workforce. Fordism is also generally linked to Taylorism, which refers to Fredrick Taylor’s attempts to introduce scientific rationality in the workplace through time-and-motion studies and pay-for-performance. Continue reading

Theory Meets Art: What Apple has to Hide

Pear Tree in a Walled Garden by Samuel Palmer, c. 1829

While our collective imagination has been gripped with the images of downtrodden folks in other parts of the world uprising in seemingly spontaneous acts of defiance, here at home, we late industrial consumers continue doing what we do best: passively and uncritically absorbing whatever is in front of us. In our zeal to dive into the next hot thing that the market offers us, we seldom have occasion to question what is absent—what is quietly being denied us—and what social costs are obscured by the price tag of a commodity.

Apple is an interesting contradiction in consumer society because, on the hand, it seems endlessly capable of producing new devices that we never knew we needed; yet, when we pick them up, they seem almost magical, enabling us to do things we hardly imagined—or, rather, to consume things in ways we never imagined. In light of its continual innovation and its capacity to generate “cool,” Apple is often seen as progressive organization. On the other hand, Apple is notorious for placing authoritarian controls on its products. As the old quip goes: “Linux is great at letting you do what you want to do (if you are willing to stare for hours at line code), Apple is great at letting you do what they want you do, and Windows is great at crashing.” Of even greater concern, Apple remorselessly outsources it labor to China’s most offensive factories, some of which recently received attention because they had to install nets around the buildings to end a spate of highly-public suicides.

Two recent artworks highlight the underside of Apple’s pristine white carapace. Continue reading

Conference Summary Part I: The Internet as Playground and Factory

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

The New School held a conference last week that may be of interest to many Sociology Lens readers, so I have decided to devote this week’s entry to sharing some notes from the conference.

The implosion of work and play was the most recurrent theme in the panels that I attended. The term “playbor” was frequently used to describe the product of this implosion. Panelists generally seemed to assume that playbor was a relatively new and increasingly prevalent phenomenon. However, one dissenter, an artist named Stephanie Rothenberg, argued that play and productivity have coincided from the earliest days of capitalism. She explained that hobbies (e.g., collecting, handicraft, parlor room singsong, gardening, and animal raising) are voluntary forms of play that produce objects with no intent to exchange them on the market. These activities often have significant social aspects and some hobbies, like music or quilting, are even done collaboratively. Given the resemblance to hobbies, Rothenberg urges that we view playbor as the latest instantiation of a historical trend, rather than newly emerging paradigm. In fact she claims that online environments like Second Life mimic the world so hyperbolically that they offer an unprecedented opportunity for us to turn a critical eye on ourselves. In our distanced view of these “simulacrums,” we find our own distanced reflections.

Continue reading

Augmented Reality: Going the Way of the Dildo

The Great Epidemic of Pornography"The Great Epidemic of Pornography"(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

While the term “augmented reality” uttered in a sexual context might immediately conjure the perennial problematic of the boozed, buzzed, and befuddled (commonly referred to as “beer goggles”), more nuanced analysis may prove fruitful. Fellow Sociology Lens news editor, nathan jurgenson, recently argued in “towards theorizing an augmented reality” that we need to anticipate an ascending paradigm where “digital and material realities dialectically co-construct each other.”

To anticipate this new reality, I argue that we ought to turn to another trend in consumer culture that has prevailed for several decades. Pornography and the sex industry have consistently been a bellwether for future technology adoption in the population writ large. Remember polaroids, VCRs, camcorders, DVDs, and high definition television? Sure you do. Ever wonder why so many of our parents and grandparents bought these items so early on, even though they were expensive and still largely untested? They were probably producing and consuming pornography. Yep, that’s right: porn. Okay, so, some people had other motivations. The conspicuous consumption of such commodities certainly confers a form of social capital which appeals to many. Yet, ample evidence exists indicating that the pornography industry has influenced the adoption of a wide range of technologies (see citations below). Even the founder of Wikipedia and one of Time Magazine’s most influential people, Jimmy Wales, began his entrepreneurial career leveraging user-generated content for profit by hosting a series of user-generated porn web rings. Continue reading

When Prosumption is Law, the Prosumer is King (for Now)

(Reposted from Sociology Lens)

Smokers, if I told you that I could get you high-quality cigarettes for half the usual price, you’d probably smartly ask, “what’s the catch.” “The catch,” I might respond, “is that I need five minutes of your labor-time per pack.” This is precisely the bargain customers are making with a Brookline, New Hampshire store called Tobacco Haven – a bargain, we social theorists might call prosumption. The shop houses a roll-your-own cigarette machine, where customers feed piles of loose tobacco and assemble their own packs.

The prosumer has been discussed widely on this blog (see, for, example: prosumers of the world unite, Light capitalism, prize economics, and the prosumer, Out of Print: Prosumption and the Triumph of New Media, the prosumer and intimate profit). Yet, often analysis has focuses on examples connected to the digital world. A recent story, however, illustrates how relevant this concept is even offline.

Customers are happy to spend a few extra minutes to get dirt cheap cigarettes and Tobacco Haven is happy with the tidy little profits it sweeps up facilitating the work of the consumer. The state of New Hampshire, however, isn’t amused and is suing the tobacco shop. New Hampshire claims that regardless of who does the production – company or consumer – the place where cigarettes are assembled should be considered a “cigarette manufacturer” and thus bound by the decade-old tobacco industry settlement as well as obliged to pay state and local taxes.

The ruling on this issue, however, has broader implications than the price of cigarettes Brookline. The courts are going to rule whether or not the labor a consumer does to obtain commodities for her own use is taxable as if it were manufacturing activity. If we start down this path, what’s next? Pumping one’s own gas? Filling one’s own fountain drinks? Assembling Ikea furniture? Updating a Facebook profile?

Hard to tell where to draw the line, but one thing is clear: prosumption will be a significant issue for the courts of the 21st Century.

Square-eye “Roll-It-Yourself Tobacco Shop Under Fire” by Sheryl Rich-Kern

Square-eye “The Intersecting Roles of Consumer and Producer: A Critical Perspective on Co-production, Co-creation and Prosumption,” By Ashlee Humphreys and Kent Grayson

Out of Print: Prosumption and the Triumph of New Media

(Reposted for Sociology Lens)

President Obama recently gave a eulogy for the legendary news anchor, Walter Cronkite, on which occasion, he delivered the nation this message:

We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. [...] Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance? Would he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?

The president waxed romantically about the old media and spoke with the sort fondness that one expects at the funeral of an old friend (or cherished institution). He was hopeful about the future of conventional media. But, eulogies are a post-mortum affair. And, for all the president’s accolades, “the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites” appear to have won the day.

In fact, these days, one can hardly avoid stories about the death of print media. Last December, the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Michael Hirschorn warned that “End Times” might be drawing near for the America’s paper of record. A recent article reports that the crisis is spreading to other forms of conventional reporting such as photojournalism. Michael Bowden has even gone so far as to announce that we have entered a “post-journalistic age.”

Two explanations for the crisis in the conventional media have been circulated by none other than the the conventional media itself. Both share the same theme: blame the consumer!

The first explanation posits that Americans these days are just plain dopes. This argument has a venerable history among media critics and has been a central theme in such diverse works as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and Andrew Keen’s recent The Cult of the Amateur. In its modern incarnation, the assumption is that a less intelligent society naturally consumes less quality reporting, thus diminishing support for the industry.

The second explanation holds that people have been seduced by the allure of free content on the web and now expect all information to be free. These latter critics believe that a generation is emerging who have seldom, if ever, paid for content and simply lack the basis from which to judge the quality of various information venues. Wired magazine editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, discusses the technological innovations which influence changing attitudes toward content in a new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, though he is not so pessimistic about the implications of “free” for the quality of content.

Regardless of their truth or falsity, such theories totally miss the overwhelming structural forces at play in the crisis of conventional media. The real threat to these institutions has little to do with taste or educational development. Rather, it is, largely, economic. The concept of “prosumption” has already been addressed several times on this blog, but as a refresher: prosumption refers human activity that combines aspects of both consumption and production. And, it is prosumption that most threatens the business model of the conventional media. Why? Because prosumption best serves the principles of capitalism in which the various form of media compete.

The increasing presence of prosumptive activities in our daily lives (most notably as a result of the important role that the Internet now in the lives of most people) has meant that people are busy doing free labor on a scale unimaginable to previous generations. Put simply, prosumption is more efficient. By efficiency, I do not mean that more quality/quantity of unique content is produce with less labor. On the contrary, prosumption is less productive. Bloggers, Twitters, and other online posters produce extraordinary amounts of (often redundant) content, but the end result is that more work produces less information of value to society. The blogosphere may require a thousands times the labor and laborers it takes for one newspaper to break the same number of stories. But how, then, is the blogosphere more efficient?

The answer lies in the Marxian concept of exploitation. For Marx, exploitation had a very specific meaning: the amount of value that the capitalist extracts from a laborer’s activity. If we accept Marx’s definition then we might say: exploitation is more efficient when the capitalist is able to capitalize on a greater proportion of the laborer’s labor and returns less to the laborer in the form of wages. Thus, the most efficient mode of organization would be one where the capitalist capitalizes on the laborer’s labor and returns nothing in the form of wages. This maximized state of efficiency describes what we find occurring on the Internet today. It is more efficient to not pay a hundred people to do a job than to pay one person to do that job. It is with this most basic logic of capitalism that the private conventional media must compete. So far, they are losing.

If the public wants to retain the quality of these traditional venues, I suggest we rapidly examine alternative funding models such as NPR’s or the BBC’s, which continue to remain successful, in part, because they simply remain outside the logic of capitalism. Without quick action, I fear many of these conventional media institutions will be dismantled beyond repair.

Square-eye Obama on a “Difficult Time for Journalism”

Square-eye“Exploitation,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Andrew Kliman, ed. George Ritzer

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