Some Ramblings on the Creeping Demise of Things

HMV

I was quite dismissive on twitter of the demise of HMV but I stand by the fact that it was no surprise. Today’s news that Blockbuster is also to go into administration leads me to reflect more widely on things, physical, hold-in-your-hand things. I don’t really have a point to make here, these are just some various thoughts that I haven’t really organised or refined. Feel free to shout them down if they’re nonsensical.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that what I’m about to pontificate on is essentially of little or no importance compared to the 9,000 or so people whose jobs are at risk as a result of these two firms going into administration. This too on the back of the recent Jessops news. That’s what really matters.

That point made, I wasn’t sad to hear about HMV’s likely collapse because to me it has long been dead. It played a pretty significant role in my musical youth, I would often stop at the Pallasades store at the top of the ramp in Birmingham on my way to work at Pizza Hut and stop back in again with my tips on my way home. I used to love the ‘GREATEST EVER SALE’ that happened every year (though was dubious about how it could be greater each year than the last) with its 3 for £10 albums. If I was lucky and I’d made £20 in tips (and not spent it on beer and buckets of chicken wings in the pub) I could get six. The great thing being, after leafing through everything on the offer racks for some time, I would only ever find four or five that I really knew that I wanted. The fifth or the sixth would be a wild card or two. I certainly would have come later to records like Screamadelica and Harvest had it not been for this offer.

I also spent a lot of time in the flagship Oxford Street store when I was a student in London. They actually had a really great vinyl selection at the time. I also recall the first time I stumbled into the Jazz and Blues section on the very top floor. Cordoned off through a glass partition to keep the pop and rock lightweights at bay, it was like visiting a specialist indie shop within the country’s biggest music supermarket. The staff in there (I could probably safely say the guys in there as they were uniformly male) had genuine expertise, they could really tell you which of the myriad Son House or Howlin’ Wolf compilations was the one that you really wanted. People with knowledge should be treasured.

I went into HMV in the Bull Ring at Christmas. I left without buying anything. What music they had was shoe-horned in to the back of the store. Best-selling DVDs were stacked head-high on the floor everywhere you turned. I’m sure there was plenty of staff there whose knowledge should also be treasured, but there was nothing of interest in the store to ask them about. It was Christmas so it was busy, but it was clear that this store was already dead.

In a round about way, this brings me to the first point I want to make about things and that is their intrinsic relationship with people.

People

The thing about actual physical objects is that they rely on people in a large number of ways. Yes, CDs are mass-produced in largely automated factories, but they still have to be made and there are people who have to do that. There is something important about taking one thing, putting it together with something else and producing something new. With music this happens in a number of ways – there’s the actual physical production of the CD or record from the various raw materials but there’s also the combination of that physical object with the recorded sound itself. You can argue the recorded sound (or the words of a book) is what’s really important but there is something about the human role in making these into enduring objects, into things, that is important. You can also create something greater than the recorded sound alone – a record is for playing, but a gatefold sleeve or limited edition white vinyl may have greater meaning than the song alone. A chair is for sitting on, but how does it look in your room?

Once you have made a thing, you have to move it around. People have to do that too. A person has to choose how to display it, how to organise it relative other things (more on this later) and so on. There is skill and knowledge involved in all of this. Knowledge of how best to do it from a functional point of view of navigating the things, but also knowledge of what the things contain and therefore how they should logically be ordered. People interested in the things can pick them up, interact with them, feel them and, importantly, ask other people about them. People may see you picking them up and ask you about them.

Now I recognise that to produce an e-book or a new type of codec for a music file there are people involved, but it’s not the same as physically producing things. I also understand that the reason what I’m listening to on Spotify is pushed to facebook is so that people can interact with that in the same way they might if they were Keith Richards seeing Mick Jagger clutching a load of Blues LP’s on that fateful morning on Dartford station. But I do feel like there’s something missing versus a physical connection between a person and a thing bringing about a connection between someone else who relates to that thing.

Ownership

When you buy a thing, let’s stick to the theme and say it’s a CD from HMV (or even from Amazon for that matter) you take it away and it’s yours to do with as you please. Being overly concerned about your ability to possess things is probably not all that healthy a trait, but it is important to note that many of the substitutes for things are far less ownable. Much has been written about this in the wake of stories like that of a Norwegian woman whose Kindle was wiped for breaching Amazon’s terms and conditions so it’s ground that may not be worth covering again, but suffice it so say that whilst my children will inherit all of my CDs and records, they may well not inherit your iTunes library.

Relationship with other things

First and foremost, physical things take up space. If the number of things we possess declines then the space we have increases. That is potentially a large positive in an increasingly cramped world but let us take an example through to its conclusion just so we can understand the other implications. If you no longer buy or own books, you will no longer need a bookcase. Many bookcases are beautifully crafted, some are just from Ikea. Either way it is likely you have chosen your bookcase(s) to fit in a specific space in your house. It is likely you have positioned them relative to other furniture. It is likely you have sought to match them to other furniture – you may have sought to match other furniture to them. There will be gaps in homes which have for hundreds of years been filled with bookcases. Some homes may even have been designed with spaces for bookcases specifically in mind. Where you place other furniture, even how we build our homes may change as we have fewer physical objects. I am not placing any value judgement on this, I am simply trying to highlight that there is cultural significance to the demise of things beyond simply the thing itself. Things exist in a system in which they are intimately related not just to us as their owners or users but to the other things around them. Culture is liquid and something will expand to fill these gaps, but for now they will exist.

Display

I have heard it said that you should not trust someone whose TV is bigger than their bookcase. Even if you subscribe to such cultural elitism, this is no longer a particularly useful benchmark as many of the most avid readers now have all of their books, not on display but stored neatly in their Kindles. This too is significant. I’m sure I’m not alone in studying the spines of books and CDs in people’s homes and forming judgements on the basis of what I see. I’m sure I’m also not alone in knowing others do this and selecting which books or CDs I might choose to display more prominently in order that people draw the best conclusions about me that I can engineer. Our old friend Baudrillard would call this is the sign value of things – how they relate to one another with in a complex system and in so doing signify certain meanings – one record is not functionally better than an other, but it signifies something very different. But if our things are no longer on display and are no longer directly and physically related to one another then that sign value perhaps becomes harder to determine and harder to form judgements upon. That may well be a good thing, Baudrillard would certainly have thought so – but again, I like the discovery angle that is attached to other people’s things. Discovering new things, but also discovering things about the people who own them. I understand Baudrillard’s argument that this tangled system of objects is one of the things that ensares us into consumerism – but I like things, I like them in and of themselves but I like them as enduring cultural artefacts too.

I have rambled on long enough and as I warned at the outset, I’m not sure I’ve made a coherent point about anything, but I suppose that’s what blogging is all about, isn’t it?

Resolutions: read more, write more, run more.

Since I got back from travelling I’ve become one of those people that comes home, sits on the sofa with  a tube of Pringles and watches Come Dine With Me for hours. I don’t want to be that guy.

So, a new year, as is traditional, brings a resolve to behave differently. This time last year I was posting a summary of my top 2010 posts. WordPress recently informed me in a whizzy email summarising my 2011 blog performance that I only managed five posts in the entire year; no point summarising that. One could say that my mind was on other things being, as I was, on my travels for half of the year. Legitimate where the Research Geek is concerned, but I also failed to finish the thoughts I was jotting about our travels – I got as far as our return to India which leaves two and a half months at the end unaccounted for. There’s also the poor old Viceroy. I quite like what I started there, but there’s a good two years plus of life in India thus far neglected. I intend to put all (or more likely, some) of this right in 2012. Starting here and in my little Moleskine of travel thoughts, I will write more. Eventually I’ll get back to the Viceroy too.

I read quite a lot whilst travelling but, aside from over the Christmas break, I’ve read very little since I’ve been back. Easier to absorb the tube’s rays. That too must change. I have a stack of unread books from birthday and Christmas which should soon be read. I’m currently working my way through The Honoured Society by the wonderful Norman Lewis then I have a spoken history of grunge, a biography of Jack Johnson (the boxer, not the surfer-songwriter), an Indian story, a history of German football and, yes, even one about advertising. There’s plenty more on my Amazon list to tackle throughout the year.

All that sitting and Pringle eating has also restored much of the wobbly midriff that six months of wandering around hot places had previously put paid to. Once I have procured some running shoes, I shall be trying to do something about that as well.

Resolutions rarely last beyond February but perhaps by putting them  up here in writing I am not only starting out on the right foot where writing more is concerned, but also steeling myself in commitment to the other two. Maybe you can all help keep me in check. We shall see. Read more, write more, run more. 2012.

Nomenclature

I’ve been thinking a bit about what we call things and what that tells us about who we are.  Apart from anything, it gives me an excuse to post a Wiley video, so that can’t be bad. The importance of what we call things is, hopefully self-evident.  Being known as AJ stirs something very different … Continue reading “Nomenclature”

I’ve been thinking a bit about what we call things and what that tells us about who we are.  Apart from anything, it gives me an excuse to post a Wiley video, so that can’t be bad.

The importance of what we call things is, hopefully self-evident.  Being known as AJ stirs something very different from being and Andrew and very definitely from being a fucking Andy (sorry Andys).  The consequences for brands should also be obvious.  Nomenclature, though, is not simply a fancy French word for ‘name’; it is concerned, too, with the system of naming things.

There are a number of names we use as marketers and researchers that, for me, bely a systemic problem.  Respondent, target group, audience and, worst of all, consumer.  All of these terms are de-humanising, homogenising or both and demonstrate very clearly that our system of naming people (yes, they are human beings) is based solely on the purpose that those people serve us at a point in time.

Consumer is the worst of the lot because it positions people as a hoard of ad-propelled locusts, concerned only with the things they consume.  Consumption, as our planet is testifying in increasingly violent ways, is destructive.  If we continue to define people in this narrow way and to encourage them to consume endlessly more we are doomed.  It’s not a question of brand survival, it’s just a basic question of survival.

If we want to do better in all our endeavours, we could do worse than to start by transforming our nomenclature to centre on the human animal as a whole rather than to subvert and compartmentalise it to suit our purpose.

Social Media and Digital Narcissism

There are more social media ‘experts’ than you can shake a stick at.  Few of them could have written as insightful a piece as this speech that Greg Stekelman gave to Media and the Inner World yesterday and has now transcribed on his blog.  I recognise I mentioned Greg in my Simulacrum post and I’m therefore in danger of looking like a Stekelman fanboy, but the truth is, I am (I’m also trying to bathe in His reflected Glory, but hopefully you won’t notice that) .

What I like about the speech is that it talks about social media in viscerally human terms.  Too often, the experts and the consultants are not as deeply immersed in that on which they pontificate as they should be and therefore frame their discourse in the abstract.  They talk more about conversations than they do about the people having them and, fundamentally, it’s the latter we should be trying to understand.

I think there are all kinds of conclusions one could draw about how we research and how brands use social media, not to mention parallels to with what I wrote in that simulacrum piece, but it feels crass to pull those out of such a deeply personal account.  Instead, I would simply recommend that if you have any interest in social media, be it personal or professional, that you read Greg’s piece in full and draw from it whatever is useful for you.

Social Media and the Simulacrum of the Self

The Simulacrum of the Self

A little while ago I was following  the MRS social media event on twitter and whilst Andrew Keen was speaking a number of tweets from people at the event began to talk about Marx and alienation (of course, I wasn’t there and I haven’t watched the video up on Research Live that I’ve linked to here, so my perception of this talk is drawn entirely from social media and may have had little or nothing to do with Marx- I’ve done this intentionally for the purposes of this post).  This set my cultural studies spidey-sense tingling and led me to start thinking a little bit about social media through the lens of some of the radical left-wing cultural theorists I know and love.  I spend a lot of time using social media, but I haven’t spent very much time thinking about it, as there’s lots of smart people already doing that for a living, but one cannot always help to where the mind wanders.

The first guy that sprang to mind was Jean Baurdillard who is perhaps most famous for claiming that the Gulf war (what we call the first one, neglecting to count the Iran-Iraq war) did not exist.   At the core of this thesis is the idea, not that nothing happened, but that it wasn’t a war – the nature of warfare applied being so far removed from anything that had previously been conceived as war that what occurred existed solely as a series of CNN reports, night vision footage of rockets being fired and blips on tiny radar screens.  This may give you a clue as to where I am going with this post.

Baudrillard’s interpretation of the simulacrum and, by extension, hyper-reality is what I’m interested in here.  The simulacrum is the signifier with no reference point in reality, it refers to something that does not genuinely exist.  There are a number of stages for this, but in post-modernity Baudrillard argues we have reached a stage where the simulacrum precedes the object to which it refers meaning we are left only with simulacrum – a completely imagined or ‘hyper’ reality.  For the Gulf war, the mediated images of the war precede the war itself.  For social media the projection of the self on facebook and twitter precedes the object of the self – we are left only with a simulacrum of the self, a self which refers to nothing.  Which brings us back to the twitter chatter around Andrew Keen –  the alienation from society predicted by Marx is one thing, alienation from yourself is quite another.

I think it was in his writing on America (though it’s a few years since I read it, so I might be wrong) where Baudrillard takes up the useful example of Snow White’s Castle at Disney World.  This is a great example of hyper-reality – one cannot deny that it exists, it is there in bricks, mortar, paint and no short measure of plastic – but to what does it refer and represent?  A purely imagined castle from Disney’s animated Snow White cartoons – of course there is some basis in reality for castles with this type of architectural detail (thanks to my friend Pete who has just been to Bavaria for the first picture in the Triptych above) but it is pastiched and bastardised beyond recognition.   The danger comes for those people (of whom there are many) whose only experience of a castle is to see Snow White’s castle at Disneyworld – it precedes the knowledge and understanding of what a castle is and what it means – the simulacrum of the castle is the castle and reality is distorted as a result.

As a short aside, this always reminds me of the Eddie Izzard bit from Dress to Kill:

“Disney came over and built EuroDisney.  They built the Disney Castle there.  Everyone was like ‘Make it bigger, they’ve actually got them here…  and they’re not made of plastic.”

Now, of course, this does not really do a huge amount of damage to Bavarian castles, but when we are talking about social media we are talking about perceptions of the self and I don’t think it can be particularly good for the psyche for the self to become a simulacrum.  This leads me on to something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is largely driven by the development of digital technology and the increasing degree to which social media are ‘always on’ – the pre-eminence of the artefact after the fact.


The Artefact After The Fact

People are increasingly separated from their own experience.  The magic of watching live music for example, is lost, when the intimacy of that experience is mediated through a four inch mobile phone screen (even for those of us not recording it, the sea of phones and cameras has some impact[/rant]).  However, increasingly, having a record that you were there, having the foursquare badge, having 50 photos of your night out on the town – is more important than actually being there and experiencing.  You meet your hero and your first thought is not ‘what have I always wanted to ask her’ it is ‘can I get a picture with her and post it as my facebook profile?’.  You overhear something amusing in a restaurant – your first thought is how can I fire this off pithily in 140 characters rather than how can I covertly share this with those in the restaurant with me.  What is happening now, in front of me, in the real world is preceded by thinking about how I can project it through social media channels – I become one step removed from my own experience.  The simulacrum has won.

If you don’t follow Greg Stekelman on twitter, then you should.  This tweet effectively sums up my 1000+ word post in 140 characters imbued with his usual killer combination of poignancy and self-deprecating humour.  James Seddon has also written at some length (here and here) of the impact twitter was having on the most important of relationships, those with his family – as a result he is one of an increasing number taking a step back from social media so that they can reclaim real experience.

I think this becomes even more pervasive an issue as we start to go further down the road towards augmented reality.  This is probably a blog-post in itself, but I think it would be more pertinent to call it subverted reality.  Of course, I’d be the first to admit that subversion is often a force for good, but when it comes to doing it to reality it’s a bit of a risky business.

So What?

Here’s the rub dear reader.  So what if we are subverting or destroying the reality of our selves?  Does it really matter?  Maybe not.  I haven’t read any Deleuze, but from what I can gather he takes a far more happy-go-lucky stance on the simulacrum and argues that it can be used as a force for positive radical change.  One can employ it to undermine the accepted order of things.  This, of course, is a popular discourse in internet theory – we are able to escape the things we do not like about ourselves and project a more favourable (/better?) persona.  I would argue that you’re probably better facing up to those personal weaknesses, but there’s also nothing wrong with a bit of escapism as long as you’re aware of that’s what it is.

That final point is what’s important for me.  Remembering for a moment that this is supposed to be a research blog, one of the bases on which social media research is currently sold is that it gives a ‘real’, unmediated picture of people’s perceptions on brands or issues; that we are able to understand the conversations people are having ‘in their natural habitat’ where they believe they are undisturbed by our prying eyes and ears.  Whether we agree with Baudrillard or Deleuze on the consequences of social media delivering a simulacrum of the self, it is important for researchers to remember that it is a simulacrum.  The process of mediation is different than that of being asked direct questions in a traditional research context, but the information we get is not, in essence, any closer to being truth.

Whilst we’re talking about French theorists of the left, Foucault, by the way, argues that truth does not really exist – but let’s leave that for another day.

Apple: a threat to diversity and innovation.

A sure fire way of getting hits and comments is to be critical of Apple, so here we go.  Apple’s press conference yesterday (I won’t put any links in, just visit any tech blog, nay, any website on the World Wide Web and you can read about it) unveiled Ping, their new social network service where you can “Follow your favourite artists and friends to discover the music they’re talking about, listening to and downloading.”.  They also trumpeted loudly the simple to use privacy tools of this system because Apple are renegades against the system and men (/women) of the people.

Well, here, loyal reader, is the rub –  you can only follow your favourite artists if they are on iTunes, you can only follow your friends if they are also iTunes users and, by the way, iTunes is only really any good to you if you consume music using Apple’s hardware.  The fact that everyone is thrilled about this shows how phenomenal Apple are at what they do – iTunes is pretty good, iPods are brilliant pieces of kit (especially if you’re not bothered about your music sounding like you’re listening to it through a particularly thick pillow), but it worries me.  It worries me because Apple now have a potentially very significant hand in the promotion/marketing/discovery of music, the distribution of music and the means by which music is consumed.  Given that music is a cultural artefact, a vertically integrated (near) monopoly of this nature cannot be good for diversity and innovation within that artefact.

Let me be clear, I’m not worried about this because it’s Apple and they are evil and horrible, I think they’re probably quite nice.  I’m worried about it in the same way I was worried about EMI, Sony-BMG and the like dominating the entire music value chain.  Let’s be honest, even though some of their dominance has been crippled by the file-sharing revolution, they still have a pretty significant hand – but in many ways the Apple dominance is even stronger, at least there were 5 of the ‘Big 5’ record labels, both in terms of legal downloads and hardware sales Apple’s individual control is much greater (80% or more market share?).   A single company having so much control over the success and failure of music artists is a huge threat to diversity – and we know Apple have been pretty ruthless on their app store with people they don’t get on with – woe betide any artist that similarly pisses them off and gets booted out from the iTunes closed shop.  Concentration of power is a bad thing wherever it is concentrated.

What Apple have done brilliantly thus far with iTunes and iPod is create some high exit barriers.  If all of your music collection is in iTunes it’s very hard to switch away from iPod – read some Amazon reviews of other portable media systems and see how many people give a low mark to the hardware because it won’t integrate with Apple’s software (because Apple won’t let it, not because there is something wrong with what Sony or Cowon have built).  It’s brilliant strategically.  Now they’ve taken the next step back in the ladder – if you are relying on a social media system built and (to some extent) controlled by Apple for discovery and interaction around music it becomes even more difficult to break away.  Many people will be happy with that system and as with all Apple things I’m sure it will work brilliantly – but a closed shop like this is an undeniable threat to diversity.

Whilst many people (including, no doubt, Sir Paul’s bank manager) are very upset about the Beatles STILL not being on iTunes, the dispute with Apple records is a positive in the context we are discussing.  The logical next backwards step in the chain to become a fully vertically integrated behemoth is for Apple to start producing music as well.  Founding a record label will always be very difficult for them unless they hive it off from the Apple brand completely.

So am I right to be worried about this?  Are my suspicions about Apple driven by my contrarian nature clouding my judgement or is Apple a big hulking monopoly with the potential to impose an iron grip on the music we come to know and love?

Some Ideas are just Shit

Short addendum to yesterday’s post. I mentioned that it’s easy to dismiss ideas as shit out of hand – that’s true and we should take care before we do so. However, whilst we’re worshiping at the altar of ‘idea’, we should also remember that not all ideas are created equal – some ideas genuinely are shit. When people are under intense pressure to come up with one, they’re sometimes too busy singing hallelujah when one comes along that they forget to think about whether it’s actually any good or not. It does everyone involved a disservice if someone doesn’t call that turd a turd. In our business, that really should happen a long time before an ad lands in my inbox to go into everyone’s favourite pre-test. Quite often, it doesn’t – and if it is shit, I won’t be too shy to tell you.