Crowdsourced reviews ensure we don’t get duped. They thus provide a modicum of regulation in a far too laissez-faire milieu. But they also confine our lives to the wan pleasures of the predictable, to the safe wagers we’re sure to receive a return from, rather than allowing us to tempt fate or bet the house.
Whether run along a conveyor or embedded in a network, a human serves the same end: the resplendent valorization formerly reserved for objects. Only when human beings become sympathetic objects will objects become sympathetic. Only then will guillotines be embraced as readily as fond relatives or long-absent lovers.
The mix tape left room for the accidental, for the clumsy-fingered pauses, the crackle of worn vinyl, the skipping of a needle, the crimping of metal ribbon, the intrusion of a voice once loved. Accidents that resist replication on a mass scale, but that exist side-by-side with the products of mass reproduction.
When someone utters words like “sustainability” and “sustainable,” I hear “intended to technologically progress no further.” Think about it: An orchestra cannot at the same time sustain one chord and strike another. The one sustained chord thus signals the entirety of the musical piece, its beginning and its end. So, if someone presents you with a piece of sustainable technology, you can be certain that you grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren will be using the same kind of device in the same kind of form.
Keep it simple, stick to a simple job, and you’ll be able to go home at night and be alone with your thoughts. No one needs to hold an emergency meeting with a waitress or postal clerk after the office has closed. A janitor doesn’t need to brown-nose via Facebook while camping with his kids. That guy at the DMV who takes your (always unflattering) driver’s license photograph never worries about all those urgent emails flooding his work inbox. No, in those jobs you put in your eight hours of hard, shitty work and then you leave it.
The social hierarchies reproduced by consumerism are also engineered to suit capital, naturalizing the sorts of ritual consumption that suit its perpetuation: rather than potlatches and festivals, we orient our consumption through such ideas as invidious comparison, competitive conspicuous consumption and self-presentation as branding. Rather than use consumption to stabilize identity and render it secure, we end up using consumerism to chase the impossible dream of unfettered individuality, of identity that is entirely free of contingencies, of finding the goods that represent us and no one else for only those rare soul mates who can interpret them. We search and search for these people, destined never to find them, no matter how many fleeting glimpses of them we catch in the mirror.
We outsourced to the people we share with the work of assembling who we are, as they are invited to sort through the data and see only the person they want to see, brushing past the details they deem irrelevant, scanning and responding just as rapidly as one sorts through an interminable list of Facebook updates. As we grow accustomed to sharing everything to everyone as a default, a new and unprecedented kind of public identity will begin to be fashioned for us: the garbage-dump self. We pile up the information about ourselves out in the open for everyone to see, and our followers, like the dustmen in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, scramble about the heap looking for useful bits among the dross.
Consumerism has the capability now of fixing us in a particular position in a class hierarchy while stifling any discontent we might have had at being so fixed. Social class remains palpable and lived in, everywhere obvious yet at the same time elusive and implicit, deviously flexible. Because its meanings are always changing, because our own identity becomes so fluid within it, the code permits us to believe that we are always on the cusp of inclusion, or perhaps worse, that we are where it’s at rather than right where they want us. It serves up so many modes for making distinctions for ourselves that we can always believe we are atop the pile that matters specifically to us, allowing the fact we are at the bottom of other piles that matter more broadly to society to seem less troublesome.
In traveling, we want to discover the existence of a world beyond ourselves without leaving the world we constitute for ourselves. Consumerism, with its brands and banalities, mediates that contradiction, embedding the familiar within the extraordinary, if not refiguring the former as the extraordinary. We can assimilate everything the world can throw at us as long as it can be reducible to the game of personal identity. Or at least we can rest assured that we can always retreat into the nonplaces that are the playing field for that game.
The networked information economy reinforces the idea that class is an outdated concept, and that we are all individual, atomized owners of our own mini-means of production. We thereby become bite-sized capitalists, manufacturing our own identity as our flagship product, supporting the social order that relies on such subjectivity. Marcuse had pointed out that society’s “supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination is an integral part of the given society.” That is to say, society manipulates our very concept of subversion, makes it seem a matter of personal style. The extension of the means of media production to the masses accelerates that development, giving individuals an ever-larger stake in the development of a self-image, and embedding that pursuit into the heart of production processes.