Culture Will Eat Itself: E-Commerce, Technology, and Public Space
Issue #48, March 2000
In 1947, the German social philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno published Dialectic of Enlightenment, their exploration of the Enlightenment's self-destruction. Throughout the book, Horkheimer and Adorno explore the ways in which the Enlightenment tradition of critical thought turns back onto itself, changing from a social force that aims to emancipate humanity from oppression to one that undermines individual sovereignty and that contributes to the reign of economic and bureaucratic domination over humanity. The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant." Dialectic of Enlightenment is replete with such savage bon-mots. Indeed, such insightful bits of criticism are what makes this otherwise densely written work such a pleasure to read.
Whatever the pleasures and insights of Dialectic of Enlightenment might have to offer, it has not aged well as a work of cultural and political analysis. Critics have argued that the work's thesis regarding the advent of the totally administered society is overdrawn. Commentators have also pointed out that Horkheimer and Adorno exaggerate the powers of popular culture to deceive and manipulate individuals. As a result, they miss the contradictions embedded in capitalist society and pay too little attention to the sources of resistance and opposition offered by popular culture.
Taking a moment to consider our present post-socialist age, I wonder if it isn't time to reconsider Dialectic of Enlightenment and its analysis of modern society, especially modern popular culture. Adorno and Horkheimer's diagnosis of culture as a "circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the system grows ever stronger" seems a very apt characterization of contemporary popular culture. Daily, the culture industry's mills churn out banal commodities that end up littering the pop cultural landscape. Examples aren't hard to spot. The airwaves are full of pop songs just catchy enough to keep people listening until the next commercial. Beyond that they fail miserably to elicit any genuine emotional response on the part of listeners. They're simply sappy. Action films abound in cineplexes across the world, providing audience members with a brief adrenaline rush and occupying ninety minutes of their time. They don't, however, open up new ways of looking at the world. Diversion and manipulation are niche marketed, the spectacle of prosperity and comfort is produced, and huge profits are made. And all the while people suffer, the abyss between rich and poor yawns, and exploitation continues as the bitterest fact of everyday life.
Yet, even in these bleak times, cultural products pop up that aren't totally empty and meaningless. These rarities demonstrate the power culture still can have. They distill the cultural, political and economic tendencies of our times into the space of a three minute song or half-hour TV episode. Not only do they provide insight into the processes that define everyday life, they can also be used as springboards to criticize the status quo and imagine alternatives to business as usual. When such products come along it is important to unpack them and probe their meaning, so that the insights they offer about the present state of affairs can be amplified and sent out into the ether of the public sphere.
One such recent product is a commercial for IBM entitled "Park Bench." The commercial is part of IBM's Innovations series. This series of advertisements has been designed to highlight products that are in development in IBM's research labs and that will be appearing on the market in the not-so-distance future. In this particular instance, the product featured is a wearable computer that, as the ad's tag-line has it, "May be far out, but is not far off."
On the surface, the commercial trumpets the virtues of technology as a positive force in daily life. It pitches IBM, once considered a corporate dinosaur, as a nimble, innovative firm that is firmly placed at the forefront of new technological developments. Below this surface, the commercial delivers insights into the revolutionary power of capital to re-define social and political space, the very needs of capitalism for growth and technological and organizational dynamism, and the ideologies that are used to justify this current round of capitalist development. And importantly, it even contains hints about the political possibilities and the utopian promise of a better life that lie latent in the contemporary situation.
The commercial opens with a shot of a young man sitting on a bench in the middle of a city square. It is not entirely clear in what city the square is. However, judging by the age and style of the buildings in the background, it is clearly not in America; it is most likely in Europe, probably Italy. Although the square is enormous, the man is alone except for a flock of pigeons milling around him. At certain key times, he jumps up shouting things like, "Buy it!" "Sell" "Up, Up, Up!" This activity manages to disturb the pigeons who flutter around in agitation. The motive for the man's jumping around and yelling is not clear. (Is he insane? Is he the latest incarnation of the Ugly American? Or is he another of the oddballs who have come to occupy public spaces?) We only find out exactly what he is up to after the camera pans in and focuses on the tiny computer the man is wearing and with which he is trading stocks. Thus the excitement and the yelling. The commercial ends with the man receiving a phone call from his secretary through the same headset. The audience doesn't hear her voice, just his response. "Yeah, Donna, the meeting went fine. I'm on my way to catch the flight." With that the man walks off and the audience hears the slogan: "The wearable computer: it may be far out, but it's not far off."
The commercial is truly impressive both as a piece of advertising and as a cultural document of our times. As an ad, it is exceedingly well crafted. Stylish and well paced, the ad doesn't waste one second of the viewer's time. Each element builds upon the next to deliver the message that IBM is an innovative firm. Along the way, the advertisement creates and sustains a sense of suspense better than most feature length films. It even manages to be humorous. The pigeons do an impressive job playing the "straight bird" to the man's manic trader character.
As a cultural text, the commercial exhibits a similar degree of elegance. There is very little that is extraneous; each of the commercial's elements is significant, and each contributes to the overall meaning of the spot. From the location of the action in the piazza to the man's youth, each part of the commercial contains important insights about global capitalism and contemporary popular culture.
Reading "Park Bench"
1. The piazza
"Park Bench" was shot on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, although this isn't necessarily obvious, except to the well-traveled. Neither the man nor the pigeons look especially Italian. Indeed, except for the buildings lining the square in the background, there are no visual or aural clues to help the audience identify the precise location of the agitated young man and the perturbed pigeons.
This is not to say that the commercial does not evoke a sense of place. It definitely does. The commercial intends for the audience to gather that the young man is away from home. This is signaled to the audience by the call the young man receives from his secretary and by the fact that he must catch a flight. The man isn't in the place where he lives; he is on a business trip. Yet beyond this, the audience does not get a sense of the man's location. Indeed, his precise location doesn't seem to matter that much. He could be anywhere.
With the help of this 'thin' sense of place, "Park Bench" offers a new take on the definition of personal freedom that is hegemonic in capitalist society. Traditionally, capitalism has defined personal freedom in terms of an individual's ability to make all the money he or she wants. "Park Bench" suggests that thanks to wireless technology, and especially thanks to IBM, individuals are free to not only make money hand over fist, but to do it at any time and in any place. Humanity, or at least the owners of capital, sit at the edge of a new frontier. Soon it will be possible to cast off the constraints of the factory, the boardroom, and the trading floor and enter the era of boundless capital accumulation.
Lest some people blanche at "All Profits, All the Time" as the guiding philosophy of the age, "Park Bench" depicts the man's economic activity not only as liberating, but also as fun. While he may be agitated, the young man is not being forced to trade stocks. Indeed, the commercial suggests that he quite likes playing stock-jockey. He is, after all, doing it in his free time after his recent business meeting. As a result he is foregoing the usual pleasures that one might pursue in a foreign locale: shopping, sight-seeing, eating, and so on.
In other words, at the heart of "Park Bench" is a particular equation linking economic activity, freedom and happiness: Profit-making = Freedom = Happiness. This should be a familiar equation. It is one of the main devices through which capitalism justifies itself and seeks to motivate individuals to accept the inequities endemic to its particular way of organizing production and consumption.
2. The emptiness of the piazza
But what if one isn't convinced by this particular equation? What if one finds it to be a deficient source of motivation? What if one subscribes to a notion of happiness that is anti-capitalist? "Park Bench" has an answer for these questions. It comes in the form of the empty piazza.
Normally, the Piazza San Marco brims with people, especially in summer. Thousands of people mill around the square, taking in the sights or relaxing in one of the cafes and restaurants that line the piazza. "Park Bench" presents a markedly different Piazza San Marco, one that, except for the pigeons and the young man, is empty and one that, save for frenetic bouts of trading and manic shouts, is devoid of human activity. In emptying out the piazza and featuring only the activities of the young man, "Park Bench" transforms a public space of leisure into a private, possessively individualistic space of accumulation.
This radical redefinition of space shouldn't be that surprising. After all, as a means for organizing the reproduction of human life, capitalism possesses a revolutionary force. Throughout its long history, it has demonstrated the ability to sweep aside traditions, institutions, cultures and even populations in the endless search for profit. Marx chose the by now famous metaphor of "All that is solid melts into air" to capture this revolutionary force.
In this instance, what has melted into air is the whole system of cultural codes and patterns of interaction that give a place a certain identity. In the Renaissance, during the hegemony of an earlier form of capitalism, city squares like the Piazza San Marco were the heart of civil society. They served as spaces for political and economic activity. Although no longer as central as they once were, these plazas are still important as sites of social activity. Yet, within the hyper-capitalist universe of "Park Bench" this traditional identity of the square has been swept aside. The piazza has been re-coded as the backdrop for the private accumulation of capital.
In performing this re-coding, "Park Bench" answers those who doubt its equation of profits, freedom and happiness with the rather blunt reply: there is no alternative. Capitalist activity completely dominates the world that "Park Bench" conjures up. Insofar as this is true, the commercial undermines the rationale for doing anything else. Why sightsee? Why read? Why sleep? Why be political? Why do anything else, if you can trade all day and all night?
In suggesting this rationale, "Park Bench" echoes a familiar device pro-capitalist ideologues employ to legitimate the status quo, namely the argument that there is no alternative to capitalism. This argument is most often heard from who support capitalist globalization with no regrets. To stand in the way of the global march of capital is to stand on the wrong side of history, they claim. There is no alternative to globalization. Indeed, it is necessary for peace and prosperity. Capitalism has become necessity itself.
In "Park Bench" it is the emptiness of the piazza that conveys this ideological claim of hopelessness. Alternative thought and practice are bankrupt. Beyond the horizons of capitalism there is nothing, only emptiness.
3. The man's youthfulness
"Park Bench" nicely illustrates capitalist ideology's "carrot and stick." The "carrot" this ideology holds out to entice people to accept capitalism is the promise of new forms of freedom and happiness under capitalist relations of production. Better living through profit. The ideological "stick" is the assertion that capitalism is an economic and social system that has no alternatives. These are powerful motivation tools in capitalism's arsenal. But just in case they are not enough, there is another popular ideological device often used to justify the capitalist way of doing things: it's only natural. This device is also on display in "Park Bench."
The equation of capitalism with nature has traditionally been a key element in the ideology political and economic elites offer to justify capitalism and all of its inequities. In light of this, the fact that the man in "Park Bench" is a young man is not insignificant. In fact, it a re-iteration of the capitalism is natural ideology. Examining the manner in which the Internet and e-commerce are discussed in the media, it is hard to overlook the fact that both are often equated with youth. In the realm of "new" media and "new" forms of economic organization like e-commerce, it is the young who are taking the lead. Indeed, in one commercial, the company board of a corporation ages before the audience's eyes as they repeatedly refuse to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon. The message is simple: innovate or die. Such commercials have the effect of equating capitalism with the life cycle. Instead of appearing as an artificial creation of man's collective activity, capitalism appears as natural as life and death and the struggle between young and old.
What is to be done?
"Park Bench" depicts and justifies a hyper-capitalist world in which public spaces become private spaces and leisure time becomes economic time. The commercial is well made. Slick and stylish, it makes the brave new world of wireless capitalism look attractive and desirable. But like the capitalist world it champions, "Park Bench" isn't perfect. Despite the abundant power of its pitch, the spot cannot completely hide the negative and de-humanizing foundations of an around-the-world, around-the-clock capitalism. It also cannot completely dispel the hope for something better than unlimited accumulation.
Haunting "Park Bench's" celebration of technology and money is a profound sense of social desolation and human isolation. In this regard the emptiness of the piazza takes on new significance. It illustrates in stark terms the human costs of capitalism's expansion into every nook and cranny of human life. Then, in the process of opening up a new space for the production of surplus value (the piazza), capitalism has colonized a space once full of people and emptied it. The result of this expulsion is the loss of a space of sociability. To be sure, public squares like the Piazza San Marco are in important ways already spaces of capitalist consumption and production. But these spaces are also more than just economic spaces. They are also spaces where people interact with one another. They talk, they flirt, they agree, disagree, and agree to disagree, they observe one another, they learn new things about the other people that inhabit their world. They do, in other words, all of those things that help to maintain the social fabric of a city.
In the world "Park Bench" conjures up, the vibrant space of sociability no longer exists. The square is empty and lifeless and has been reduced to the desolate backdrop for the isolated young man's frantic trading. Society has been robbed of an important resource.
If "Park Bench" cannot hide capitalism's desolate core, it also cannot completely obscure the possibility for anti-capitalist alternatives embedded in capitalism itself. As we noted, one of "Park Bench's" central messages is that the future promises more autonomy for individuals thanks to IBM and its technology. With the aid of his wearable computer the young man has been freed to make money outside the confines of everyday time and space. Or so it seems. Then, despite the advanced state of his headgear, the young man is not completely autonomous; he still must rely on others to undertake his trading. Indirectly, he relies on the workers who pieced together his computer. More directly, he relies on his secretary to help him organize and administer his economic activities. The production of value, even if it takes place in cyber-space, remains a social activity. It cannot be done alone, but rather involves entering into a specific set of social relationships. As such it is still susceptible to collective action. It is still possible, in other words, to alter how humanity goes about securing its daily bread.
This is the message the left needs to send out. Part of combating instances of capitalist cheerleading like "Park Bench" entails pointing out the contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in capitalist ideology. But this is not enough. The left also needs to underscore that alternatives to business as usual exist. The left needs to emphasize that political action remains a significant element in the struggle to bring about progressive political change, alter public opinion and influence the actions of politicians. To my mind, the recent WTO protests in Seattle were so important because they demonstrated the effectiveness of political protest and direct political action. The WTO showed that there is more to everyday life than shopping on e-Bay or trading with Ameritrade. It demonstrated that there is also more to politics than sound bites and politicians who feign interest in the opinions of citizens because that is what their pollsters tell them to do. Through political protest, social movements capture the world's attention, thematize injustice, and articulate visions of freedom and equality beyond the bottom line. This is the message that those of us on the left who are one or two steps removed from the barricades need to take up, amplify and send out along the networks of the media-saturated public sphere.
In the process of amplification, we can also provide an answer to Horkheimer and Adorno. As "Park Bench" illustrates so well, capitalism aspires to colonize all aspects of life from public space to individual leisure. It aspires, as Horkheimer and Adorno argued, to impress upon individuals the idea that profit seeking, consumption and accumulation are the only natural, respectable and rational activities in modern society. Yet however much capitalism aspires to the total administration of life, it can never entirely succeed. Again, as "Park Bench" illustrates, capitalism is beset by contradictions, it falls short in its attempt to motivate individuals and legitimate is particular brand of social reproduction. Shining a light through these chinks in the armor of capitalism is where Enlightenment still has meaning and purpose.
John Brady is a graduate student in political science and co-director of Bad Subjects.