The Changing Face of Consumerism IX – Real, Real, Real

Just as the nature of consumerism has changed dramatically during the course of the last decade – not to mention the last half-century – so the nature of industry has also metamorphasised. In so-called ‘developing’ countries (it’s a questionable term. Technological advances could be seen as development, but an exponential increase in fossil fuel consumption and an insatiable need for unsustainable resource is rather akin to ‘developing’ a 40-a-day smoking habit coupled with some heavy drinking), Industrialisation has caught on, dragging them into the global marketplace. By this, of course, it simply means that large corporations can circumvent domestic legislation in favour of giving workers rights and exploit an fiscally impoverished workforce even more ruthlessly. Driving costs down is good for business, as it increases profits, and the shareholders and the City love that.

As more manufacturing has been ‘outsourced’ to developing countries, the nature of employment in the ‘developed’ countries has moved toward tertiary service industries. Collar colours aside, the most fundamental difference between service and manufacturing industries is the tangibility or physicality of the product. The closest you’ll get to seeing or holding your insurance or shares, for example, is in the form of a certificate or other printed document. When you think about it, these objects which represent the thing in itself but are not in actuality the thing in itself – i.e. the signifier to the signified – you’re buying a concept more than an actual product. Of course, this is simply how money works: the ten-pound note in your wallet is not actual money, but a physical symbol of money. The balance in your bank, if you’re fortunate enough to be in the black, does not mean there’s really £500 that you own just sitting there. This is common knowledge, but it’s hard to separate the concept from the reality. You do not have any real money. No-one ever sees ‘the money’. Tom Cruise could yell till he’s blue in the face, he’s never going to be shown the actual money, just more printed paper that promises to pay the bearer a designated sum on demand. But try making that demand and all you’re likely to get another sign or representation.

We live in a virtual world. In his writing on ‘The Political Unconscious’, Frederic Jameson theorises that one feature of postmodernity is a reality that is infinitely deferred. This theory is now the reality as we exist in our virtual worlds projecting ersatz avatar versions of ourselves into the ether. It becomes impossible to distinguish the real from reflection, not only for others, but for ourselves. Do we become the identities we project, or do they become our real-life selves when the layers of the onion that is the multi-faceted personality are peeled back one by one?

On a personal level, my real-life self and virtual self are indeed separate but given to occasional and significant crossover. And so it is that we both like music and books with a passion, but struggle to get to grips with the modern trend for downloading. It’s ok: Deleuze and Guatarri convinced me I’m ok because a schizophrenic mindset is the only sane response to the postmodern, late-capitalist society I find myself in.

Stumbling around the house trying to avoid the partially organised and rather precarious stacks of CDs and books in the office and groaning each time I try to accommodate a new purchase onto the shelf or rack, I can completely understand why people would want to declutter, to reduce their lives. Yet try as I might, I find myself unable to separate the intangible – the music or the words – from the tangible, the physical – the record or CD or the book.

Nevertheless, I like my intangibles to present a physical form. The way I respond as a reader to words contained in the books I read is a complex process, which, while admittedly develop through conditioning and personal experience, is nevertheless intertwined with the act of reading. An audiobook may contain exactly the same words, but will not cause me to react in the same way. On a purely personal feel, the act of reading also entails the turning of the page, the look, feel and smell of the book. The quality of the paper, however poor, the print, the formatting, the cover, while peripheral, are all integral to varying degrees in combining to create the experience as a whole. Even the process of sourcing books is a part of the relationship I have with it: memories are made in the locating of a book in a little secondhand shop while on holiday just as much as they are of recalling where I was when I read the book, and how I was feeling at the time.

The same is true of music and many other objects – objects that now clutter my home, but collectively tell a version of the story of my life. This isn’t to suggest in any way that I am my possessions, or that my possessions own me and not vice versa. Nor would I really describe myself as a materialist in the conventional sense.

Perhaps it’s my age, but I want to feel as though I’m actually buying something when I part with my money. Yes, I know that in reality that it’s the production – the recording, the creative process – that is where the bulk of the cost actually lies. The physical object – the CD or the book – coat pence each to manufacture. A CD may cost in the region of 49 pence to produce, but paying the artist a wage of some descrption, that allows them to eat while they record the album, for which it’s necessary to hire (and pay for) a studio, engineer., etc., soon becomes a substantial expense, and one that must be recouped – usually before the artists gets paid, too. Then there are the designers, the PR people, and all the rest. So, the difference in production cost between a CD and an M3 version of an album comes down to the medium. However, this is only partly true: depending on the size of the manufacturing run, the cost of producing a CD is in fact negligible, and the same is true of a book. Yet as a consumer, I don’t really care about these matters: it feels like the difference is a yawning chasm that spans half the universe.

It’s not just the sound quality (I know the sound of Mp3 files has improved enormously in the last few years, but even if an MP3 isn’t compressed to fuck, it’s still inferior to the digital spectrum we were once sold as being the glory of the CD, which in turn lacked the vibrance and depth of vinyl. Forget clarity, that clinical crispness strips something from the recording that can’t be substituted or compensated, and the MP3 is the CD’s poor cousin, lacking the physical presence and lyric booklet in much the same way that a virtually turning page is not, however hard it might pretend to be, a fair substitute for an actual page.

I’m aware of the issues of storage, perhaps more than most. 1,500 or so LPs and 12” singles, 600 7” singles and in excess of 2,000 CDs are a real bastard to house in a two-bed terraced property, and to move when it comes to relocation. But at least I know where my money’s gone and what I need to insure. Picking up a storage device no bigger than an audiocassette knowing that it contains not only my entire music collection, but also music to the value of something in the region of £30,000 is almost inconceivable. The same is true of a virtual library. The fact that a fire tearing through the house would – or could – have the same effect regardless of my choice of ‘file’ type is really beside the point.

It’s curious to note how times have changed: time was when an extensive library of books and an expansive record collection were perceived as accomplishments. They inspired respect, even awe. Now, the owners of large volumes of material possessions are considered to be simply behind the times, information dinosaurs plodding a Luddite land of clutter that’s cumbersome and difficult to navigate. Why would anyone want a 10-volume encyclopaedia when mankind’s entire learnings can be obtained on-line via Wikipedia (or other sites if more specialist knowledge is required, but why would you want that, really, unless you’re a real nerd)? In fact, what’s the point of a space-hogging PC base unit and monitor when you can have everything you need on a tablet? A music collection and library that not only occupies considerable space, but cost a fortune and took a lifetime to accumulate seems entirely redundant beside a small, flat piece of digital kit that costs around £300 and can be transported anywhere. And I suppose if you’re happy or able to accept a life of precarity, instability, endless mobility, that’s fine, but it’s not for me.

In fact, for many, owning music seems superfluous when you can stream it all via Spotify. It frees up funds to purchasing other ephemeralities and experiences. Again, the idea of a life recorded on Facebook is one that doesn’t appeal to me. The public nature of the medium aside, I struggle with the concept of a reliance on something that may disappear at any time. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in our world of rapid development is that technology attains obsolescence at an evermore speedy rate. There was a time, believe it or not, when the 8-track, the cassette and the videotape were all cutting edge. Betamax, laserdisc and minidisc were all the future, yet despite the qualities these media offered, early adopters were left out of pocket and out of style, not to mention out of the technology loop. CD was supposed to supersede both vinyl and the audiocasette – yet strangely, the MP3 killed both CD and tape while vinyl hangs in there, with a whole new wave of audiophiles sustaining a market that previously didn’t exist. I digress: the point is that Facebook could be next year’s MySpace, and a life on line is only a transient representation of real life: it’s a history that can not only be easily misrepresented and misappropriated, but one that could even more easily be erased. Obviously, nothing’s forever, but the physical – especially if backed up, duplicated somehow – has a greater capacity to be futureproof than anything that relies purely on the intangible (but then I find the idea of playing a virtual guitar while playing at being in a virtual band equally abhorrent and not just a little strange Step away from the console, pick up a real instrument, learn to play and form a proper fucking band if you have any interest in Rock Stardom!).

I’m not doing technology down as such – at all, in fact – but can you imagine future generations, instead of looking through albums and biscuit tins of family photos and shoeboxes of postcards and correspondence, gluing themselves to a screen and reminiscing about the day that prompted that romantic email, the wonderful day out to the coast captured magnificently in 6 megapixel digital colour, or even the idea of returning to that book you so loved in college and forwarding your friend or child the Kindle download to read and share the wonder? In all of the streamlining, the decluttering, something has been lost. An on-line playlist is not a direct or equal substitute for a lovingly-compiled mix-tape with lovingly-written, hand-scribbled notes on a piece of paper torn from an exercise book and inserted, tightly-folded, into the plastic case. If, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, the medium is the message, what sort of message is a medium that’s so theoretical say about our times and its users?

The bottom line is that if I’m spending money on something, I want something to show for it. I’m not suggesting that it needs to be big to justify the expense, but in a world where so little is fixed, stable, reliable, there’s a lot to be said for keeping it real as a means of keeping it grounded, and as a way of keeping it accessible in the future.

 

Vinyl

 

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…. And the Point Is…?

I’ve never really been big on computer games. When I was a child, there weren’t any. Not really. I was seven then the first Spectrums came onto the market, and no-one I knew had one. Home computing was simply not mass-market in the way it is today. My sister, five years my junior, got a second-hand one, and while I spent the occasional half hour playing flight simulation games, I much referred, well, most other activities. Reading, drawing, making things. I even used to play sports, despite being hopelessly crap at all of them. I liked being outdoors, although preferred quiet, indoor solo pursuits. So why didn’t gaming appeal? I suppose I couldn’t really see the point. It didn’t feed my imagination like reading, wasn’t productive like art.

I did, much later, while at university, discover the joys of Mario Kart, and purchased a second-hand N64. The other games that came with it, I didn’t dig. FIFA Soccer was really difficult to play, and Goldeneye gave me motion sickness. It didn’t help that I’d keep dropping my weapons and spend half the game bitchslapping my assailants.

I did also waste many hours playing Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker and a game called Ascendancy in the mid-late nineties, particularly during a fortnight-long bout of very heavy flu. I couldn’t leave the house, had no energy, there was nothing on television and so I sat, in my dressing gown, playing computer games.

When I began writing seriously, I found that all of my spare time – and even time that wasn’t spare – and all of my energy was occupied with the outpouring and arrangement and rearrangement of words. I soon forgot about playing games on the computer. I had a better use for it, and it was impossible to do the two things at once. Gaming very soon struck me as a terrible waste of time: there was nothing remotely constructive about it, and ultimately, it was not particularly rewarding.

Sitting at work the last few weeks – well I have to pay the bills somehow – I’ve been bored half to death by a couple of guys who sit nearby, talking endlessly about computer games. Well, specifically, console games. Having both rushed out to purchase the latest version of FIFA Soccer, they’ve begun arriving at work and recounting the games they’ve played in the minutest of details. The sliding tackles, the headers, the goals, the fine tuning alterations they’ve made to their players strength, weight and agility ratings, comparing notes and exchanging advice on how to improve their rankings.

I couldn’t care less about football to begin with. Actually, that’s not true: if there’s one thing I care less about than football, it’s fantasy football leagues, and if there’s one thing I care less about than either of those things, it’s virtual football.

More recently, the morning’s topic of conversation was different. The two mind-numbingly obsessive gamers sounded like they’d taken a night off gaming to look at cars. For three hours straight they discussed the different dealerships they’d seen and what cars, makes and models they were each stocking. From the sound of it, they’d even test-driven a few cars, detailing to nth degree the BHP of each vehicle, the handling, the brakes, the overall performance, and what upgrades might be done to improve aspects of the performance. Christ, it was tedious, but a made a change from the usual gaming bollocks. Their moronism remained unchallenged as one bragged about taking a corner at 70mph, while the other boasted of pulling off a risky move to overtake (or ‘take over,’ as he put it) another vehicle. Dangers to society they may be, but at least they’d left the house. Or so I had thought, until I eventually discovered that they had both left work the night before and headed straight to purchase the eagerly-anticipated new version of Gran Turismo, released that very day, and had proceeded to stay up until after 2am playing the game, trying out the different cars.

Picking my jaw off the floor, I began to wrestle with the levels of pathetic non-existence these guys are clearly scaling on a nightly basis. They’re actually reasonably popular, and have more friends than I do. Friends who stop by their desks, email, phone and text them… usually to discuss football and gaming, but still. By contrast, I go out several nights a week, either with company or without, to pubs, gigs, comedy and spoken word events. Meanwhile, they stay in six nights a week, are ‘too busy’ for social networking because it interferes with their gaming and football watching. I contribute in my own small way to the world with my reviews, my writing and so on. And yet it’s rare for people to stop by my desk, email, phone or text me to discuss music or literature or the state of the world. I’m not actually complaining, but, well, how can this be?

More saliently, how can these people – who seemingly represent the majority, and are thus considered to be fully functional participants in society – not realise that their behaviours are unfeasibly sad? Do they not miss real life? Or even the interaction that social networking and on-line chat facilities afford, which can often provide a fair substitute, while offering the means of connecting with like-minded individuals who may not reside locally, or even in the same country? Surely these are not only more useful, but more exciting applications of technology? Or could it be that virtual life, as represented by gaming, has evolved to replicate the reality so well that reality, with its inconveniences and unpredictable elements, seems like a rather poor second?

This seems to be a very real possibility. For a start, one of the gaming buffs actually drives. I mean properly, a real car. He goes places in it. He then drives the same vehicle while playing ‘GT’, and apparently, it’s amazing how realistic the handling is. His virtual car is just like the real thing! Ok, but to me, that sounds very much like going home from work to play a game where I do my day job, only without getting paid for it.

In recent months, the ad breaks on television have been taken over by plugs for the latest Wii games and controls, the X-Box Kinect (what’s with the ridiculous spelling?) and the ‘brain training’ games for the Nintendo DS. All very commendable: they’re actually helping the nation to get fit and for idiots to sharpen up and be slightly less retarded, and even helping the elderly fend off Alzheimer’s by keeping their minds occupied. Brilliant! But aren’t they simply providing so-called ‘solutions’ to problems they perpetuated in the first instance? Much like McDonald’s adding healthy options to the menu, it’s a win-win situation for them, and while such steps could be seen as a positive move made as a response to the enormous backlash, they’re certainly not doing it because they’re philanthropically motivated.

Putting to one side for now the suggestion that these innovations are nothing to do with the nation’s wellbeing and are instead merely new ways of making vast quantities of money by tapping into the zeitgeist and the widespread paranoia concerning our collective health, there remains one glaringly obvious question: why? As in, why the need for all of these things that replicate that which already exists? So, there are puzzles and crosswords and Sudoku and the like on the DS, are there? Ok, so why the need for a digital version? The originals were perfectly adequate and have been around for a long time. When did you last hear someone on a train or sitting at a bus-stop complaining that the battery had run out on their pack of cards, or that the screen on their word-search had broken while in their pocket?

The same arguments are equally applicable to the Kindle. ‘But it’s just like a book! You can turn the pages just like a real book! And no trees died to make a Kindle!’ the device’s advocates proclaim with glee. A book is also like a real book. You can turn the pages of a book just like a real book, too. Because it is a real book. And once manufactured, a book requires no power and is a lot easier to reuse and recycle than a Kindle. There will be ancient, leather-bound tomes in existence centuries after the Kindle has been extinguished and superseded, we can be sure of that.

Some will no doubt accuse me of churlishness, and argue that I should be pleased that there are now devices in so many households that encourage fat kids to do aerobics, to run, jump, dance and swim. Ok, but whatever happened to actually doing real aerobics, running, dancing, swimming? Football, cricket… Look, I hate to put a damper on things, but it’s all just another fad. Rubik’s Cubes were great brain-trainers and Space Hoppers made people bounce around, and outside, too. Ok, so it was safe to go outside back in the 80s, before paedophiles had been invented, but really, where’s the perspective here? How can virtual sports, sports simulations, be as good on any level as real sports? I’m speaking as someone who hates sports, and was rubbish at sport as a child. But I still got out there, and I still walk between places now. It’s free, and it’s a way of incorporating exercise into my daily routine. Believe me, it’s not difficult. It makes a lot more sense than driving to the takeaway for my tea, then coming home to play a virtual cooking game, followed by a game where I can pretend to drive the same car I just got out of round a digital replica of real streets, before finally moving on to a game where I walk on the spot, encouraged by a digital replica of a real-life personal trainer or celebrity.

What’s next, I wonder? I can just about see the point of The Sims, but lately it’s all become a bit too, well, realistic in its detail. Your characters have to interact and go shopping to remain happy and healthy, and you need to empty the bins and so on. And then of course there’s Second Life, where you live out an alternative life in the virtual world. How far will it go? Will people experience virtual (or real) depression when they are made virtually redundant from their virtual jobs that are so realistic you feel like you really could be in the office, shuffling papers and taking calls from complaining customers? Having been virtually sacked, you lose contact with all of your virtual friends, run out of virtual money, fall behind on the virtual rent and find yourself on the virtual streets… you’re so down you’re contemplating suicide and accidentally kill your real self because you’ve lost the ability to differentiate.

Real life may be grim at times, but replicating it is surely the most pointless of all things. Whatever happened to using one’s leisure time constructively, productively, or even  indulging in a spot of escapism? After all, escapism doesn’t have to be mindless, and surely even mindless escapism has to be better than mindless realism and living in a mind-draining facsimile of real life.

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk