Saturday, July 22, 2017

Sucking The Life Out Of Shopping

            As many of you know from your own personal experience, more and more purchases of everything from clothing to electronics to books to food are being made from the comfort of one’s home.  There is a flavor in this modern purchasing experience that is almost like making wishes to a genie.  Make your wish on a website on your computer and, presto magic, in a relatively short period of time, what one has wished for appears at one’s door or in one’s mail box.  Of course, distinct from the experience with a genie, one does have to pay for that which one wishes, but nevertheless, because the whole narrative journey between desire for something and actual acquisition of it has been reduced to a few manoeuvers and clicks on a computer mouse and keyboard, there is definitely something that seems ethereally magical about the whole process.

             A very different situation has resulted in the acquisition of products in many preliterate societies, both past and present.  There people within a tribe or in groups from different tribes would meet up in the flesh, and there would be an exchange of products through barter.  Each individual, group or tribe would bring the product or products that they could easily acquire, cultivate or make and exchange them for products they wouldn’t normally have access to.  This exchange experience represents a situation of pure flowing blendable continual stimuli – flowing economic exchange without the defined figures of formal places for economic transaction.  Also there aren’t formal fixed defined discrete values for products, and people would bargain to create temporary blurry contingent values.

            Eventually, the somewhat defined figures of formal market places have developed, and the use of formalized vehicles for exchange in the form of currency have developed.  In these situations, there was still bargaining done, but now it was done more through a standardized vehicle of exchange.  Initially, that would have been things like cowrie shells and beads.  And in the marketplace, people who bought and sold from each other developed social relationships and passed gossip back and forth about the people they knew.  The marketplace became a place of making, receiving and preserving organic imprints in different ways through the buying and selling process, and led to the development of meaningful life narratives.

            As some people start living in villages, towns, and cities, even more defined figures of indoor markets and of stores developed, and the buyers and sellers became truly distinct from one another.  Currencies become more standardized in the defined discrete forms first of metal coins and then of paper money.  Prices for different items started to become more fixed, and many diverse products and services could frequently be acquired in one place.  Rather than selling primarily just what they produced, shopkeepers acquired products from different producers and sold them to customers.  In these shops, there was less opportunity to make an organic imprint through bargaining for a good price, as prices began to represent standardized preserved imprints, more fixed values.  Particularly in villages and small towns, there were still social relationships between shopkeeper and some customers, and gossip about what was happening in the town was still passed back and forth between the two.  As a physical space, each store represented a defined figure, but it was placed within the common grounded space of the village, town or city, which had public areas like streets and town squares and public buildings that belonged to all.

            As urban areas became more prevalent, shopkeepers dealt more and more with customers they didn’t know.  The transactions between buyer and seller became more focused on the economic aspects and less on the social aspects.  Nevertheless, however attenuated the social relationship between buyer and seller became, there was still the expectation that the seller would demonstrate his expertise in the merchandise by guiding his customer to the right purchase.  This was where the focus of the human shopping narrative began increasingly to reside.

            And then along came shopping centers and suburban malls.  The spaces in which the shops were housed were no longer part of a larger public domain that included government offices, government services and libraries as well as parks and community centers, although governments do sometimes rent out an occasional space in centers and malls for specific purposes.  Shopping centers and malls belonged to one or more private owners.  They were separated from everything around them by the vacuum space of parking lots.  The point of these stores was just to make money.  The centers were not a part of a larger public community.  There was no sense of grounding to be obtained from them.  And because the emphasis was on making money to the exclusion of any social narrative goals, sales people were not hired on their knowledge of the area or areas of merchandise they were assigned to sell. The idea was to get as many entry-level workers as possible to keep wages low.  They were people who could sell the merchandise, but not necessarily answer many questions about it.  Of course, this has particularly been carried to an extreme with the salespeople at big box stores, people who are frequently responsible for many different kinds of merchandise.

            This certainly is a long way economically from the barter that too place in some preliterate societies and from the sales in outdoor marketplaces, where there was bargaining and bonding and the exchange of gossip.  But the distance both physical and psychological  between buyer and seller grows even more when we get to e-commerce.  Here not only is there no bargaining on most sites, no bonding, no exchange of gossip, and no demonstration of expertise by the seller, but there is also no physical journey to a store in external world reality and no physical encounter with a sales person.  Without the journey and the encounter, there is no making, receiving and preserving organic imprints.  The sales process does not become a part of a meaningful life narrative for either buyer or seller.  A vacuum experience connects the buyer to the product.  So many ancillary benefits are lost when a person buys something online.  There is no journey in the external world to the place of purchase.  There is no social bonding with the seller.  There is no exchange of gossip about the community with the seller.  There is no fine-tuned matching of the buyer’s desires with a product that truly fits his needs and is appropriate. 

            A product or a service is not simply an isolated figure that is useful in and of itself.  A product or service is a vehicle for connecting a person with the whole physical and social world in which he lives.  A product or service is a vehicle for having a rich vibrant experience in the art of purchasing something from a traditional flesh-and –blood seller in the external world.  A product or service is a vehicle for making, receiving and preserving the organic imprints that come with the encounter with a more traditional salesperson.  A product is a vehicle for creating memories that, as preserved organic imprints, help to build a more meaningful surrogate immortality for both buyer and seller in their preparations for death.

            Purchasing products online means purchasing figures bereft of their grounding and of their possibilities for grounding for humans.  What is left is figures floating in the vacuum of the screen reality of a computer or a smartphone.  These are figures that no longer have the spatial grounding that comes from being bought in the external world reality of a marketplace or a store.  They also no longer have the temporal grounding that comes from being the endpoint of a narrative process that involves a person going from his home or place of work to a place where the product is displayed and sold as a result of an interaction with one or more live humans.

            But nowadays, the vacuum is increasingly no longer the backdrop that surrounds the product.  Instead the vacuum is increasingly the product.  Books for kindle, MP3’s, Spotify and Pandora for music, Netflix for movies and television.  And a myriad of different apps, many of which have to be purchased for your smartphone.  People are increasingly involved with all these vacuum products which contribute to the vacuumization of their living environment.  In some cases, even the currency has been vacuumized in the form of mobile payments and virtual currencies like bitcoin.

            The history of humanity started with people evolving out of enveloping nature, living a very guarded existence to protect against organic perishability.  Then as people’s reflexive awareness grew and their desire to avoid organic perishability and develop meaningful surrogate immortalities grew, people focused on surrounding themselves with hardened defined discrete figure products and becoming hardened defined discrete figures themselves.  But figures could break apart into their component parts.  Machines can rust and shatter into pieces.  What is left is the vacuum of pure consciousness.  From living in grounded nature to being surrounded by manufactured products to being surrounded by vacuum services and processes and consciousness in screen and virtual reality.  This seems to be the course of human history.

            Just as the figures of manufactured products and buildings grew out of the grounding of natural resources, so the vacuumized phenomena of images and data are growing out of the movie, television, computer, smartphone and tablet figure screens. With advances in modern technology, more and more the focus on phenomena in the external world is shifting from the solid masses of figure products to the emptiness of vacuum services.  The archetypal figure today, a complex behavioral entity, is a machine or robot.  Is there a vacuum complex behavioral entity?  Traditional societies dealt with angels, ghosts, spirits, and, of course, gods or God.  Today it is the images of screen reality, the phenomena produced in virtual reality and the disconnected human consciousness proposed by the Transhumanists – the consciousness that is kept alive somehow apart from its perishable organic human body. But how does one leave organic imprints with only consciousness, how does one have a meaningful human sensory encounter with sentient beings?  What does it mean to live forever without a sensory human narrative?  Does it become a kind of living death?

(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow

No comments:

Post a Comment