Shelf Life

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Shelf Life CURATED & DESIGNED BY Lindsey Tom

Shelf Life CURATED & DESIGNED BY Lindsey Tom


Shelf Life is a publication that explores the relationship that millenials have with their favorite object. Studies show that there is a growing shift in values. However, after conducting my own survey, 35 out of 53 millenials preferred objects of sentimental value over new technology. The articles and excerpts collected in the publication will create a greater understanding of the basis of object value and the impact that information technology is having on human interaction. We are communicating through screens and within the parameters of 160 characters or less. Shelf Life reveals the pitfalls of this new method of interaction and allow readers to move forward in a more informed manner.



> 160 CHARACTERS an article from the Washington Post by Yuki Noguchi. [pg. 010]

ABSTRACTNESS OF POWER an excerpt from “System of Objects” by Jean Beaudrillard.



GADGETS & ROBOTS an excerpt from “System of Objects” by Jean Beaudrillard.

17 VS. 36 a survey of fifty-three people from Generation Y about their favorite objects.

[pg. 50]

[pg. 08]

[pg. 014]





BUY, USE, REPEAT an excerpt from “Made to Break” by Giles Slade. [pg. 020]

PUBLIC ISOLATION PROJECT a selection of blog entries by Cristin Norine from the Public Isolation Project.

HOOKED ON TECH NY Times article, “Attached to Technology & Paying a Price” by Matt Richtel

[pg. 030]

[pg. 062]




THINGS WITH SOULS an excerpt from “Stuff ” by Isaiah Black. [pg. 02]

CREDIT TO FREEDOM an excerpt from “System of Objects” by Jean Beaudrillard. [pg. 10]

MY FAVORITE THINGS an excerpt from “My Favorite Things” by Melanie Wallendorf & Eric J. Arnould. [pg. 22]

Shelf Life: The Breakdown

> 160 CHARACTERS Yuki Noguchi


> 160 Characters // Yuki Noguchi


Andrew Weigle can fully express himself in several dozen characters or less. That’s the amount of space he gets on his Motorola Razr phone to compose text messages, which he sends mostly to friends and, on at least one occasion, to a girlfriend to break up. “It was easier to say, ‘Look, things just aren’t working out’“ over the text message, said Weigle, 23, who lives in Falls Church. “I’m not the most verbal person when it comes to expressing emotions,” he admitted, but with text messaging, “I can put it out there and feel like I’m not saying it. I find there’s a little more freedom to say what you’re feeling.” A generation ago, those kinds of missives came in handwritten form, taking days or weeks to arrive. Then e-mail made communication much quicker but still allowed time and space for reflection. Now, text messaging — like its older cousin instant messaging — is giving rise to a new, electronic written culture that is truncating all of that. A text mes-

sage sent via mobile phone is usually confined to 160 characters or less and takes several seconds to send. To accommodate this short form, language is acquiring acronyms — “H8” (hate), “iluvu” (I love you) and “ruok” (are you okay) — that allow text messages and other instant messages to relay information about life’s mundane details as well as its emotional brambles. About 7.3 billion text messages are sent within the United States every month, up from 2.9 billion a month a year ago, according to CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade group. After Hurricane Katrina knocked out or overloaded communications systems, one of the only ways to reach lost relatives and friends was through text messaging, which transmits in sturdy little bursts of data that can often make it through even when voice lines are snarled. Compared with an ink-and-paper letter, messages may seem disposable. The relative inconvenience of typing out words using a numeric keypad — the letter “c,” for example, requires three 9

Shelf Life: The Breakdown

presses of the “2” button — and the brevity of the message may seem a hostile environment for heartfelt discussion. But the discipline of having to distill thoughts into short bulletins, then waiting to receive the response, allows users to pour more meaning into the writing, some text-message users say. “There is something different about communications that are mediated by a piece of technology; it is easier to talk about difficult subjects, and that is both good and bad,” said Amanda Lenhart, senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, who has interviewed many teenagers about how they use technology. “You don’t see the person’s upper lip tremble. You don’t hear their voice quiver. You don’t get those external, non-textual cues,” so delicate subjects might be easier to broach, if also sometimes easier to misunderstand, she said. Text-based intimacy went on display during a recent Bon Jovi concert at the MCI Center, when Sprint Nextel Corp. invited the audience to send in text messages, which then scrolled across a gigantic screen behind the stage, including proclamations of love, birthday shout-outs and even several marriage proposals. Robert Helsel III and his two sisters high-fived when their text message to their baby brother lit up the screen: “Todd helsel here in our hearts.” “In June 2002 our little brother was killed in a car accident,” said Helsel, an Elkton resident. Todd was 18 and a week


shy of his high school graduation. “We grew up on Bon Jovi. We’ve always been huge fans; we always wanted to see Bon Jovi before we died,” Helsel said over the din of the crowd. Seeing Todd’s name appear over the stage was a kind of fulfillment of that, he said. “It was like closure. It just made it feel like he was right there with us.” The brevity of a text message gives it a certain poetic beauty, said Washington resident Erik Lung, 34. As in enigmatic haiku, there is lots of space for reading between lines, particularly in an early-stage romance. “You can send a quick little message saying you’re thinking of her,” the operations research analyst said. Then “you start paying attention not only to what the message says, but you care about the response time.” There’s a meta-message: The shorter the response time, the more she cares. Text messages also feel more personal because the cell phone is always physically close, Lung said — a feature that works for and against him. He recently got into an argument with a friend, for example, who sent angry messages in all capital letters, berating him for ignoring her. “She started insulting me over text message...and it was not a good scene. It annoyed the hell out of me,” he said. “Text messaging will catch you no matter where you are.” Messaging alters language and composition style, said Tom Keeney, director of messaging for T-Mobile USA. Slang has gotten more detailed and

> 160 Characters // Yuki Noguchi

sophisticated, making it possible to say more on a tiny canvas, much like poetry, he said. “It’s almost like letters gave way to postcards. It was a way to say something on the go.” Text messaging became popular in the United States about three years ago, coinciding with the first television season of “American Idol,” which allowed viewers to vote for contestants by sending messages to the show. Now, almost a third of the country’s 200 million cellular phone subscribers use text messaging regularly for social or business purposes. In a recent survey, more than 60 percent of U.S. adults used text messages to tell others they missed or loved them, according to a survey by Tegic Communications, a company that makes predictive-spelling software used on most U.S. cell phones. In the same survey, 27 percent said they used them to flirt, 7 percent to ask someone for a date, and 2 percent to break up. Two percent proposed marriage via text. In Europe and Asia, where textmessaging started earlier, emotional messaging is more common, according to Tegic. Among Germans, 70 percent said “I love you” or “I miss you” over text; 13 percent of Italians and 12 percent of Chinese subscribers admitted to breaking up over text. Alexandria resident John Mallory said he has developed emotional attachments to some old text messages but occasionally must erase them to make room for new ones. “It says, ‘Your

mailbox is 90 percent full,’ “ said Mallory, 24, opening his phone to read an old message. “I’m in a constant battle to pick which ones to save.” But the saved messages can come back to bite. “I’ve had a friend in particular whose girlfriend was going through his phone and saw flirtatious text messages to an ex-girlfriend,” he said. And that was a deal breaker.


Shelf Life: The Breakdown



Abstractness of Power // Jean Beaudrillard


Man’s technical power can thus no longer be mediated, for it has no common measure with the human being and the human body. Nor, by extension, can it any longer be symbolized: functional forms can do no more than connote it. Certainly they overburden it with meaning in their absolute consistency (aerodynamism, manipulability, automaticity, etc.), but at the same time they are formal expressions of the void that separates us from our power; In a sense they are the ritual that accompanies the miracle-working of the modern world. They are the signs of our power, then, but also testimony to our irresponsibility with respect to that power. It is here, perhaps, that we should seek the reason for the morose technical satisfaction to which initial euphoria over mechanical achievement has so quickly given way, for the peculiar anxiety that takes hold of all beneficiaries of the wonders of the object, of obligatory non-involvement, and of the passively observed spectacle of their own power. The uselessness of habitual gestures and the breakdown of everyday routines founded on movements of the body have a profound psycho-physiological impact. Indeed, a genuine revolution has taken place on the everyday plane: objects have now become more complex than human behaviour relative to them. Objects are more and more highly differentiated -- our gestures less and less so. To put it another way: objects are no longer surrounded by the theatre of gesture in which they used to be simply the various roles; instead their emphatic goal-directedness has very nearly turned them into the actors in a global process in which 13

Shelf Life: The Breakdown

man is merely the role, or the spectator. There is a moral to be drawn from the following little tale. We are in the eighteenth century. An illusionist well versed in clockwork has devised an automaton. An automaton so perfect, with movements so fluid and natural, that when the illusionist and his creation appear on the stage together, the audience cannot tell which is which. The illusionist then finds himself obliged to make his own gestures mechanical, and -- in what is really the pinnacle of his art — to alter his own appearance slightly so as to give his show its full meaning; the spectators would eventually chafe if they were left in doubt as to which of the two figures was ‘real’, and the neatest solution is that they should take the man for the machine, and vice versa... This story provides a good illustration of a familiar fatal relationship to technology, even though in the case of modern reality we do not awake to the applause of an audience delighted to have been so thoroughly duped; a good analogy for a society with a technical apparatus so highly perfected that it appears to be a ‘synthetic’ gestural system superior to the traditional system, a sovereign projection of fully realized mental structures. For the time being the human gesture is still alone capable of supplying the precision and flexibility demanded by certain tasks, but there is no reason to assume that the unceasing forward march of techne will not eventually achieve a mimesis which replaces a natural world with an intelligible artificial one. If the simulacrum is so well designed that it becomes an effective organizer of reality, then surely it is man, not the simulacrum, who is turned into an abstraction. It was already apparent to Lewis Mumford that ‘the machine leads to a lapse of function which is but one step away from paralysis’. This is no longer a mechanistic hypothesis but reality as directly experienced: the behaviour that technical objects impose is a broken-up sequence of impoverished gestures, of sign gestures bereft of rhythm. It is rather like what happens to the illusionist of the story who, in response to the perfection of his machine, is led to dismantle and mechanize himself. The coherence of his own structural projection thus relegates man to the inchoate. In the face of the functional object the human being becomes dysfunctional, irrational and subjective: an empty form, open therefore to the mythology of the functional, to


Abstractness of Power // Jean Beaudrillard

projected phantasies stemming from the stupefying efficiency of the outside world.

THE FUNCTIONALIST MYTH For the concrete dynamic of effort has not disappeared completely into the abstraction of the mechanisms and gestures of control. It has been internalized as the mental dynamic of a functionalist myth: the myth of the possibility of a totally functional world of which every present-day technical object is already a sign. The repressed gestural system is thus transformed into myth, projection, transcendence. No sooner do we lose sight of the route taken by energy, feel energy to be intrinsic to the object, become the non-responsible beneficiaries of an absence (or near absence) of any need for gesture and physical effort, than we are surely justified in believing - indeed, are obliged to believe - in an absolute and limitless functionality, inefficacy as the virtue of signs. Something is revived here of the ancient habit, prevalent in a world of magic, of inferring reality from signs. ‘Part of the feeling of the efficacy of primitive magic has survived in the unconditional belief in progress,’ writes Gilbert Simondon. This applies not only to technological society in a global sense but also -- confusedly but tenaciously -- to the everyday environment, where the most insignificant of gadgets may be the focal point of a techno-mythological realm of power. The way objects are used in everyday life implies an almost authoritarian set of assumptions about the world. And what the technical object bespeaks, no longer requiring anything more than our formal participation, is a world without effort, an abstract and completely mobile energy, and the total efficacy of sign-gestures.

FUNCTIONAL FORM: THE LIGHTER All this is exemplified in the stylized fluidity of ‘functional’ forms. It is precisely this mental dynamic, this simulacrum of a lost symbolic relationship, that such forms connote in their striving to reinvent a teleology from signs alone. Consider the lighter shaped like a pebble which has been successfully promoted by the advertisers in the last few years. Oblong, elliptical and asymmetrical in form, it is described as ‘highly functional’ -- not that it is better than any other lighter for lighting cigarettes, but be-


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

cause it quence, just so long as an object eventually brings one human being face to face with another — at which point the object has become a message). All the same, no matter how open a collection is, it will always harbour an irreducible element of non-relationship to the world. Because he feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself. In this he is doomed to failure: he cannot see that he is simply transforming an open-ended objective discontinuity into a closed subjective one, where even the language he uses has lost any general validity. This kind of totalization by means of objects always bears the stamp of solitude. It fails to communicate with the outside, and communication is missing within it. In point of fact, moreover, we cannot avoid the question whether objects can indeed ever come to constitute any other language than this: can man ever use objects to set up a language that is more than a discourse addressed to himself? The collector is never an utterly hopeless fanatic, precisely because he collects objects that in some way always prevent him from regressing into the ultimate abstraction of a delusional state, but at the same time the discourse he thus creates can neverfor the very same reason - get beyond a certain poverty and infantilism. Collecting is always a limited, repetitive process, and the very material objects with which it is concerned are too concrete and too discontinuous ever to be articulated as a true dialectical structure So if non-collectors are indeed ‘nothing but morons’, collectors, for their part, invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them.


Abstractness of Power // Jean Beaudrillard


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

BUY, USE, REPEAT Giles Slade


Buy, Use, Repeat // Giles Slade


To scrutinize the trivial can be to discover the monumental. Almost any object can serve to unveil the mysteries of engineering and its relation to art, business, and all other aspects of our culture. HENRY PETROSKI, THE PENCIL : A HISTORY ( 1989 )

INTRODUCTION For no better reason than that a century of advertising has conditioned us to want more, better, and faster from any consumer good we purchase, in 2004 about 315 million working PCs were retired in North America. Of these, as many as 10 percent would be refurbished and reused, but most would go straight to the trash heap. These still-functioning but obsolete computers represented an enormous increase over the 63 million working PCs dumped into American landfills in 2003. In 1997, although a PC monitor lasted six or seven years, a CPU was expected to last only four or five. By 2003 informed consumers expected only two years of use from the new systems they were purchasing, and today the life expectancy of most PCs is even less. In 2005 more than 100 million cell phones were discarded in the United States. This 50,000 tons of still-usable equipment joined another 200,000 tons of cell phones already awaiting dismantling and disposal. Unlike PCs, the compact design of cell phones resists disassembly for recycling-it's much easier just to throw phones away and make new ones. So despite the fact that they weigh only a fraction of what PCs weigh, discarded cell phones represent a toxic time bomb waiting to enter America's landfills and water table. 19

Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Cell phones and PCs travel in the company of a vast assortment of obsolete IT electronics, including last year's palms, Blackberries, Notebooks, printers, copiers, monitors, scanners, modems, hubs, docking ports, digital cameras, LCD projectors, Zip drives, speakers, keyboards, mice, GameBoys, walkmen, CD players, VCRs, and DVD players-all awaiting disposal. PlayStations, Xboxes, and iPods are not far behind. Obsolete cathode ray tubes used in computer monitors will already be in the trash (superseded by LCDs, as in Japan) by the time a U.S. government mandate goes into effect in 2009 committing all of the country to High-Definition TV. The CRTs of analog televisions are constructed along the same general design as those of PC monitors, but they are larger-often much larger-and are made up of about 55 percent toxic lead glass, while a monitor is only about 28 to 36 percent. But the looming problem is not just the oversized analog TV sitting in the family room, which will require a team of professional movers to haul away- The fact is that no one really knows how many smaller analog TVs still lurk in basements, attics, garages, and kitchens, not to mention the back rooms of sports bars, fitness clubs, and other commercial sites. What is known is frightening. Since the 1970s, TV sales have achieved about a 95 percent penetration rate in American homes, compared to the 50 percent penetration rate computers achieved in the 1990s. For more than a decade, about 20 to 25 million TV's have been sold annually in the United States, while only 20,000 are recycled each year. So as federal regulations mandating HDTV come into effect in 2009, an unknown but substantially larger number of analog TVs will join the hundreds of millions of computer monitors entering America's overcrowded, pre-toxic waste stream. Just this one-time disposal of "brown goods" will, alone, more than double the hazardous waste problem in North America. Meanwhile, no one has figured out what to do with plain old telephone service receivers, whose lead solder connections and PVC cases are quickly becoming obsolete as consumers make the switch to 3G cell phones and VoI (voice over the Internet). As these archaic devices are piled on top of other remnants of wired technology, America's landfills—already overflowing — will reach a point where they can no longer offer a suitable burial for


Buy, Use, Repeat // Giles Slade

the nation's electronic junk. Until recently the Unite States shipped much of its toxic e-waste to China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other economically desperate countries in the developing world. But exportations, at best, a stop-gap strategy. Following the Basel convention, the United Nations slowed electronic waste shipments to these ports. But more practically, the e-waste problem will soon reach gigantic proportions that it will overwhelm our shipping capacity. The world simply cannot produce enough containers for America to continue at its current level as an exporter of both electronic goods and electronic waste. Consequently, all of these discarded and highly toxic components represent an insurmountable future storage problem. We do not have enough time, money, or space in the continental United States to create enough landfills to store and then ignore America's growing pile of electronic trash.

WHAT BROUGHT US TO THIS PASS? Deliberate obsolescence in all its forms — technological, psychological, or planned — is a uniquely American invention. Not only did we invent disposable products, ranging from diapers to cameras to contact lenses, but we invented the very concept of disposability itself, as a necessary precursor to our rejection of tradition and our promotion of progress and change. As American manufacturers learned how to exploit obsolescence, American consumers increasingly accepted it in every aspect of their lives. Actual use of the word "obsolescence" to describe out-of-date consumer products began to show up in the early twentieth century when modern household appliances replaced older stoves and fireplaces, and steel pots replaced iron ones. But it was the electric starter in automobiles, introduced in 1913, that raised obsolescence to national prominence by rendering all previous cars obsolete. Even the most modern American women hated hand-cranking their cars and were greatly relieved when they could simply push a start button on a newer model 1.6 The earliest phase of product obsolescence, then, is called technological obsolescence, or obsolescence due to technological innovation. The second stage of product obsolescence occurred about a decade later, in 1923. Executives who had migrated to General


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Motors from the chemical and dye-making giant DuPont adapted a marketing strategy from what was then America's third largest and most rapidly growing industry: textiles and fashions. Instead of waiting for technological innovations that would push consumers to trade in their older-model cars, General Motors turned to sleek styling as a way of making newer cars more desirable and pulling potential buyers into the showroom. The success of GM's cosmetic changes to the 1923 Chevrolet indicated that consumers were willing to trade up for style, not just for technological improvements, long before their old cars wore out. This strategy was so successful that it spread quickly to many other American industries, such as watches and radios. The annual model change adopted by carmakers is an example of psychological, progressive, or dynamic obsolescence. All of these terms refer to the mechanism of changing product style as a way to manipulate consumers into repetitive buying. The most recent stage in the history of product obsolescence began when producers recognized their ability to manipulate the failure rate of manufactured materials. After prolonged use, any product will fail because its materials become worn or stressed. This is normal. But during the Depression, manufacturers were forced to return to the practice of adulteration — the nineteenth century technique of using inferior materials in manufactured goods — as a simple cost-cutting measure: inferior materials lowered unit costs. But these same manufacturers soon realized that adulteration also stimulated demand. After a decade of unprecedented affluence and consumption during the 1920s, consumer demand fell radically with the onset of the Depression, and in desperation manufacturers used inferior materials to deliberately shorten the life spans of products and force consumers to purchase replacements. Planned obsolescence is the catch-all phrase used to describe the assortment of techniques used to artificially limit the durability of a manufactured good in order to stimulate repetitive consumption. To achieve shorter product lives and sell more goods, manufacturers in the 1930s began to base their choice of materials on scientific tests by newly formed research and development departments. Theses tests determined when each of the product's specific components would fail. One of the few


Buy, Use, Repeat // Giles Slade

known examples of this monopolistic (and hence illegal) strategy was a change, proposed but never implemented, to shorten the life of General Electric's flashlight bulbs in order to increase demand by as much as 60 percent. As obsolescence became an increasingly useful manufacturing and marketing tool, an eclectic assortment of advertisers, bankers, business analysts, communications theorists, economists, engineers, industrial designers, and even real estate brokers contrived ways to describe, control, promote, and exploit the market demand that obsolescence created. What these approaches had in common was their focus on a radical break with tradition in order to deliver products, and prosperity, to the greatest number of people—and in the process to gain market share and make a buck. Both goals strike us today as quintessentially American in spirit. But even as these professionals were inventing the means to exploit obsolescence, a number of articulate American critics began to see this manipulation of the public as the very epitome of what was wrong with our culture and its economic system. The former journalist Vance Packard raised the issue powerfully in his debut book, The Hidden Persuaders, in 1957, which revealed bow advertisers relied on motivational research to manipulate potential buyers. Others, including Norman Cousins, John Kenneth Galbraith, Marshall McLuhan, Arcbibald MacLeish, and Victor Papanek, would follow Packard’s lead in pointing out bow the media create artificial needs within vulnerable consumers. The sheer volume of print Americans brave devoted to this topic since 1927 demonstrates that obsolescence has become a touchstone of the American consciousness. The book you have in your hand is a collection of stories that emerged during my search for obsolescence in uniquely American events' the invention of packaging, advertising, and branding; the rivalry between Ford and GM; "death dating"; the invention of radio, television, and transistors; the war and the postwar competition with Japan; rock and roll, the British Invasion, and male fashions; universal home ownership; calculators, integrated circuits, and PCs; the space race, tail fins , and TelStar; and the looming crises of e-waste. The theory and practice of obsolescence play a central role in each of these American milestones.


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

At each juncture, vested interests struggled and competed to achieve repetitive consumption through obsolescence, in its many forms and combinations. A few years back as I was visiting a touring exhibit called "Eternal Egypt" with my ten-year-old son, it occurred to me that while the ancient Egyptians built great monuments to endure for countless generations, just about everything we produce in North America is made to break. If human history reserves a privileged place for the Egyptians because of their rich conception of the afterlife, what place will it reserve for a people who, in their seeming worship of convenience and greed, left behind mountains of electronic debris? What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? Will America's pyramids be pyramids of waste? The point of this book is to raise this troubling question. A few foresaw a [world) , , . in which the ever-expanding taste for ‘material goods and the theory of comparative advantage would keep us all running as fast as we could on a giant squirrel wheel. JAMES KATZ, MACHINES THAT BECOME US (2003)

REPETITIVE CONSUMPTION Long before mass production became a universally accepted term in the 1950s, American businessmen worried about overproduction and how to avoid it-not by producing less but by selling more. As the late nineteenth-century economy changed from man-powered to machine-driven industry, manufacturers became painfully aware that their factories could now produce more goods than could be readily distributed and consumed. America was "suffering from overproduction," a frustrated retailer wrote in 1876. "The warehouses of the world are filled with goods." Half a century later, the inventor of disposable razors, King Camp Gillette, still considered overproduction to be America's most troubling social evil: "We have the paradox of idle men, only too anxious for work, and idle plants in perfect conditions for production, at the same time that people are starving and frozen. The reason is overproduction. It seems a bit absurd that when we have overproduced we should go without. One would think


Buy, Use, Repeat // Giles Slade

that overproduction would warrant a furious holiday and a riot of feasting and display of all the superfluous goods lying around. On the contrary, overproduction produces want." As American manufacturers and retailers thought about solutions to this industrial-age dilemma, they decided that the problem of overproduction was twofold. The first problem was demand — how to create it and how to sustain it. The related problem was distribution—how to move goods swiftly and profitably from factories to consumers. From the late nineteenth century onward, Americans confronted the problem of distribution head-on, through the development of national highways, cheap and reliable railroad freight, mail-order houses such as Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, department stores such as Bloomingdale's, Wanamakers, and Marshall Field, and eventually national retail chains like Macy's and, in recent times, the merchandising giant Wal-Mart. While retailers were developing a national distribution network, manufacturers attacked the problem of slack demand by developing innovative marketing campaigns. Advertising would play a major role here, but what was it about their goods that manufacturers should advertise? Before consumer ads could become effective in crating a demand for a product, the product had to be differentiated in some way from similar goods. Why was Uneeda Biscuit preferred of Iwanna Biscuit? The goal was not to simply increase biscuit consumption per se but to create repetitive consumption of one's own brand, which would relieve overproduction. The central marketing question of the early twentieth century was how could a manufacturer encourage consumers to return to his product again and again, instead of buying the wares of his competitor? Solutions to the problem of how to promote repetitive consumption would eventually include a wide range of manufacturing strategies, from branding, packaging, and creating disposable products to continuously changing the styles of nondisposable products so that they became psychologically obsolete. All such strategies derive from a marketing question first expressed in the late nineteenth century but most succinctly rendered in 1925 by Edward Filene, the influential Boston department store magnate: "How can I manage my business ... so that I can be sure of a


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

permanent and growing body of consumers?"

BRANDING & PACKAGING The first answer that manufacturers found was branding. In the 1850s a handful of products, including Singer sewing machines and McCormick agricultural machinery, began to display the company name prominently, as the initial step in establishing a direct relationship between the company and its customers. Singer also provided financing, service, trade-ins, and authorized local dealers who educated clients in the use and maintenance of their expensive machines, eliminating shopkeepers as middlemen. Branding soon became closely associated with another strategy for creating repetitive demand: packaging. Manufacturers of foodstuffs could not screw a metal nameplate onto their products, but they could advertise their brand by enclosing those products in fancy packaging. As a practical matter, individual packaging allowed manufacturers to distribute their product more widely. And in a few cases, modern packaging itself became the focus of a successful advertising campaign. In 1899 the National Biscuit Company, makers of Uneeda Biscuit, began to feature its patented In-Er-Seal prominently in a national campaign to create demand for their product. Before Nabisco developed this new marketing strategy, consumers had bought biscuits (also called crackers) in bulk from an open cracker barrel in a local store. At a time when bakeries were scarce and crackers were a more common staple than bread, National Biscuit emphasized that Uneeda's In-Er-Seal package prevented moisture from ruining the quality and flavor of their biscuits. They supported this campaign with a wonderful newspaper and handbill graphic that depicted a boy in a yellow slicker pushing a wheelbarrow full of biscuit boxes home in the rain. Eventually the boy in a yellow slicker became ubiquitous on Uneeda packaging, and customers asked for Uneeda biscuits by name. The National Biscuit Company had successfully created enough demand for its product to guarantee repetitive consumption and to free Nabisco from problem of overproduction. Three other companies — Wrigley's, the American Tobacco Company, and Procter & Gamble-adopted similar tactics to es-


Buy, Use, Repeat // Giles Slade

tablish product loyalty among their customers even before the historic Uneeda campaign. They designed strong national ad programs not just to identify their brands but to provide reassuring guarantees of quality. Such guarantees were necessary for customers who bought most staples in bulk and were suspicious of any packaging that prevented them from testing, tasting, or sampling. In time, as promotional campaigns became more sophisticated, consumers overcame their qualms about packaged goods. They realized that a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, a box of United Cigars, or a bar of Ivory Soap would always be the same, no matter where it was bought. Modern packaging, with its trademarks and identifying logos, guaranteed that those products would be of consistent quality and safe to buy. And because these products were distributed nationally, brand names assured consumers of an equitable value-for-money exchange at any store in the country. The home efficiency expert Christine Frederick observed in 1919 that "the one means of protection the consumer can rely on is the 'trademark' on the package or product she buys...In every case, the trademarked brand carries more integrity or guarantee." By the turn of the Century Americans were getting into the comfortable habit of remembering their favorite brands and asking for them by name. We had been in the United States only a few days before the realization came home strongly to my father and mother that they had brought their children to a land of waste ... There was waste, and the most prodigal waste, on every hand.


Shelf Life: The Breakdown



Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine



November 1, 2010 Wow, it’s really happening. As of 12 am this morning,this is my new place of residence for the next 30 days. I had a little anxiety about sleeping while being watched, but I slept like a baby last night. Even though two people banged on the windows trying to wake me so they could explain how they were going to rescue me. I’m excited to see how the next few weeks will go.

DAY 2 November 2, 2010 I woke up to another person pounding on the window this morning. Jeez, I guess some people don’t like to let others sleep in. There were lots of people coming by today. One guy was perplexed by the idea that I really can’t come out or open the door to explain why I am doing this. I tried to motion that he should facebook me…we’ll see if I make a new friend. The number one question everyone asks is if I have a bathroom. I took a few pictures to show you that indeed I do. It has a makeshift shower, but it serves its purpose. One of my other visitors was a friend. He sent me a text that said, “This feels kinda fucked coming to see you, but staring at my phone the whole time.” I replied, “ That’s kinda the point.” 29

Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Living in public is strange. At home, I don’t get text message telling me that I should make my bed. I usually do, but today I didn’t. That will teach me. I am kind of starting to feel like I live in a zoo, but I am okay with it for now.


November 3, 2010 To clarify the types of ‘digital interactions’ I am using to communicate. I am using social media, video chatting, and my iPhone. Although, I am not using the iPhone as a cell phone – that is so 1973. Instead, I am using it to text and FaceTime. I think video chatting is what is going to keep me from going insane. I am looking at ichat as my version of Hal from 2001: a Space Odyssey. I already see that I am communicating with some people more because of video chatting. For example, my 13 year-old brother will actually talk to me for more then 3 minutes (that’s his current average when talking to me on the phone). However, it could be because he really just likes to show me funny videos on YouTube. For those of you who don’t know, you can share your computer screen with the person you are chatting with – a new discovery for me. The thing I find most interesting when video chatting with my brother is that he won’t allow his face to be on camera because he knows the people on the street can see him. When I asked him if he thinks people can see information about him on the Internet he said, “No, I have a really good firewall.” I tried to explain to him that sites like Google and facebook sell his information. I don’t think he got it, but the conversation was started. The way in which different generations view the Internet regarding privacy and usage is very interesting to me. The younger generations tend not to have much of a filter or sense of why privacy is important. My generation sees the value in new technology, but wonders how healthy it is and then my parents’ generation has a very defensive way of thinking about it. It makes me wonder how my children will view it. That’s one of the many 30

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reasons I decided to do this project.


November 4, 2010 I have been getting asked a lot of questions so I am going to try and answer a few of them here. AM I WORKING WHILE IN HERE?

No, I am a freelancer and I’m in between jobs. However, I am applying for MFA programs which will take up a lot of my time. I still have to take care of personal business, but most everything can be done online these days so it’s pretty easy. ARE YOU GETTING BORED?

Not yet. I’ve had a lot to do this week. Check back in next week. I am trying to set a schedule for myself so I can have somewhat of a normal routine. I may even try and take guitar lessons from in here. If you know anyone that does lessons via video chatting, let me know. HOW DO YOU GET GROCERIES?

I order them online once a week. A couple people in the building (I like to call them my angels from above) volunteered to receive the delivery. They email me to tell me it’s here and I go hide in the bathroom so I don’t have any direct contact with anyone. IS IT HARD TO SLEEP?

Sometimes. It takes some adjusting to people watching you 24/7, but I am getting used to it. It’s also a lot brighter in here at night then I am used to so I am adjusting to that as well. Sometimes I use an eye mask. It’s getting better every day. People have also stopped knocking on the windows to wake me, that helps. I will leave you with images of someone who decided to come down and play me a few songs tonight. Thank you, my masked friend, you made my day. He also left a little gift for passersby…. sidewalk chalk!


Shelf Life: The Breakdown


November 5, 2010 Wow, the First Friday event was an overwhelming success. A big thank you to those of you who made it out. It was really great to be able to speak to many of you about the project. It’s always interesting to hear your responses. I haven’t spoken much about how this project came about so I thought I would explain a little. I was driving home from a grad school recruiting event while talking to Josh. I was explaining what concepts I wanted to focus my portfolio on and he was telling me how he was bummed that his current project fell through. Originally, Josh was going to have a person living in the space who would try and create the smallest carbon footprint possible, but the guy backed out. It was on that phone call that I said, “put me in the box.” During the call we both realized that our concepts worked well together and it could be a great project. That was on October 10th. That didn’t leave us a lot of time to pull it all together and I had to make the drive here from LA. Need-less to say, it’s been a busy few weeks. Once we got started outlining the project, a few kinks started to arise. One thing was that it was really important to me that the audience be able to see in the gallery, but for me to not be able to see out. I did a ton of research trying to find a material that would allow this. There is such a thing that is used often for surveillance windows, but scientifically it doesn’t work for this. Whichever side is brighter is the side you will be able to see into. And, well, I can’t control the sun – even in Portland. I told Josh this might be a deal breaker for me. He then proceeded to explain to me that the glass really doesn’t allow anyone to communicate effectively in any real meaningful way. And after being in here, he is right. I can wave and make out a word or two and sometimes body language allows me to communicate, but I never really understand the full intention. I just get bits and pieces. It turns out, this is very fitting for what I am trying to say. I compare this to the way we communicate in social media. We tell people what is going on with us, but a lot of time 32

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it’s in 140 characters or less. We don’t send letters anymore. Instead, we keep in touch with short emails and facebook messages. Does this mean fragmentation is the new narrative? Have we stopped communicating in a way where we tell a story that has a beginning, middle, and end? Even in person we often stop a real life conversation to respond to text messages and to update out profile statuses. I am beginning to wonder. I also think Josh was right because I am still missing a key part of human interaction – the touch. I can’t shake a hand or give a hug. So whether or not I can see through the glass or make out a couple words a person says, I am still isolated in here. The video chats do help me feel connected. We’ll see if that lasts. When collaborating with another artist, you often have to make compromises to your project to make both pieces work. Luckily for us, the topic of the windows was really the only thing that we had to adjust. And in the end, I think it works better anyway.


November 6, 2010 Today is the first day that I felt like I am starting to freak out. People where taking bets on how long this was going to take and I said 2 weeks. Yikes, it’s only day 6. I am finding that the lack of privacy and the crazy amount of attention that has been spotlighted on the project is causing me to have anxiety. I knew it was going to be hard especially since I am normally a fairly private person. I don’t consider myself an especially extroverted person and I’m definitely not an exhibitionist. Yes, this is what I signed up for, but I thought it wouldn’t affect me this much, this quickly. I don’t have cabin fever and I am not bored. I just find moments in the day where I want to hide under the covers or in the bathroom for a minute or two to catch my breath. I thought disconnecting from the Internet for a little while would help. So I tried to read and watch movies, but I found that I was still distracted by people walking by or talking pictures. If anything, video chatting and messaging with people has made me feel better and think less about being watched. 33

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Because of this, no tweets and very few emails went out today. Now it’s late at night and I feel better, a lot better. Today was a roller coaster of emotion. It was pretty rough for a little bit, but somehow now I am fine. Hopefully, I won’t have any anxiety attacks tomorrow. Let’s hope.


November 7, 2010 My survival guide to living in a glass box: 1 // Create a normal routine. 2 // Exercise daily. 3 // Meditate. (Not something I was interested in before this.) 4 // Be as social as possible on the Internet. 5 // Try to do as much on the outside as I can from the inside. (This

has already included coffee with friends and will soon include me

recruiting people to send me video of concerts I am missing.)

6 // Really focus on how I am feeling, what I think it means in reference

to this project and share that information.

7 // Enjoy it. This is a rare and unusual experience only to be

had once.

8 // Have fun with the audience. (People are starting to be more

interactive and I am loving it.)

9 // On bad days watch this.


November 8, 2010 The first week is behind me and the word is getting out. Now conversations are starting to get interesting. Here are some highlights from today. After speaking with a friend about ideas behind the project, she couldn’t stop thinking about it after we spoke so she emailed me with these questions: Are we afraid that if we don’t have a web presence that we become socially irrelevant or does the amount of web presence we have makes us socially relevant? If we didn’t have the web


Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine

to communicate with people then how would we feel socially relevant? Shortly after that conversation, I spoke to a different person that said she feels insecure about not being as in touch with the newest technology and doesn’t have the ability to use social networking as well as others. I found it interesting that she followed this up with how she prefers in person contact, but it still bothers her that she’s lacking a skill that she feels is now becoming required. People keep asking me about the rules. So to clarify, Josh put these rules in place: I can’t leave the space for 30 days, I can’t have visitors inside the space, and I can’t cover all the windows at one time. I also touched on my rules in previous blogs, but as a couple visitors pointed out today mine are becoming more of a game of Mao. In addition to the rules I have already spoken about, I can tell you that I don’t think writing notes or trying to communicate through the glass is cheating. In fact, I think it adds to the project so keep it coming.


November 9, 2010 Today was a seemingly normal day. I worked out, did some work, did some laundry, and even had a guitar lesson. Who said life in a box was so unusual? Okay, if it wasn’t raining I might have wanted to sneak in a walk around the block. Instead, I stayed in and pondered the many things that make me wonder about how social etiquette is changing because of social networks. Have you ever thought about how weird it is to run into someone who you are friends with on facebook, but maybe not really that good of friends with in real life and then they start talking about your birthday party or your sister’s wedding, only they weren’t there? Sometimes when I run into someone, I’m not quite sure if it’s appropriate to bring up that I know all about their trip to Australia or the last concert they went to. Maybe they will think I am stalking them, but wait didn’t they post those images for the entire world to see? I was talking with a friend and he had an interesting analogy. He describes it as if someone came over to 35

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your house, went through all of your things, and then didn’t tell you that they were there. Ironically, we are the ones that put all this stuff out there and then we are surprised when we realize who is seeing it. This leads me to another thing. If these people aren’t good enough friends to want to share photos and general updates with, then why are we friends with them on these social networks anyway? Sure we can hide some of the information and categorize people into different groups, but why even go through all that trouble? Every once in a while a while, a friend of mine goes though his facebook friends and cleans house so to speak – getting rid of all those “friends” that aren’t really friends. But many people feel a sense of guilt in doing this. Just like when they felt guilt for not wanting to accept them as friends in the first place. If you run into a friend you haven’t seen in years, you don’t immediately invite them into your house to check things out so what do we feel guilty for denying them opportunity online?

DAY 10

November 10, 2010 Josh and I are shocked at the response to this project. We knew there might some interest from the media, but we didn’t really think there would be as much as there is. Now we are getting media requests from CNN. I guess I was right in the assumption that this is a much-needed topic to discuss. Because all of these technologies are so new and developing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up the conversation about what it all means. Some of the responses I get from people are that they think I am just bashing social media. To make it clear, I see the value in social media and these new technological tools that help us stay connected. However, I tend to think we may be too connected or in the not so distant future we will be too dependent on these tools, but I definitely don’t see it as all bad. I have to be honest, I don’t feel alone or isolated in here yet. The only thing that has bothered me is being watch 24/7, but I think I am over that now. Do you think it’s strange that I can spend 36

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10 days without holding a hand or being given a hug? I think so. I am usually a very touchy person. Proof that social media and technologies like video chatting makes us feel closer to people. However, I have 20 more days to go and a lot can change in that amount of time. There is research out there that supports the idea that tweeting and surfing facebook can makes us happy. See more here (make sure you look at experiment #3.) Maybe I am doing fine in here because I am constantly communicating online. One thing I am noticing is that I am truly addicted to it right now. I can’t turn it off at all during the day. When I stop to try and read a book I am distracted by the alert messages. I could turn these off, but I don’t. I feel like I might miss something. I am starting to think that I could get to the end of the 30 days and not feel that like I am disconnected from the outside world at all. But what would that mean? The thought that I don’t feel that different without human-interaction could be scary too. It’s possible to live that way, but do we want to? Of course, I may not really know how all of this affects me until it’s over and I am trying to resume my life before the box. I wonder if it will be too much for me to be around people again.

DAY 11

November 11, 2010 I am finding myself a little scattered brained today. I don’t know what to attend to first and then once I start working on something I am easily distracted. As I am trying to get work done, emails are pouring in, people are trying to chat with me, I am getting Skype requests, and text messages – sometimes all at the same time. I feel guilty for saying no or not responding because they are friends and family wanting to know how I am doing and they are only trying to be supportive. It’s a little overwhelming. I am experiencing attention like I never have before and I am doing it under a microscope. It’s all a bit much right now, but I know the novelty will wear off soon and then things will quiet down.


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Being on display is the aspect of this project that gets people’s attention. Which makes me wonder, what would it have been like if I did this from my own apartment? I am pretty sure if I had done that, I wouldn’t be getting emails from my aunt in Wisconsin telling me she saw me on TV, fielding media requests, and I certainly wouldn’t be getting offers from strangers to come have lunch with me on the other side of a glass window. But the most important thing is that I wouldn’t be getting comments on my blog or emails from people telling me how this has made them think about their own social media and cell phone use. This is an art installation and not a scientific experiment so the findings are less important then the message. Everyone may not see the value in this project, but as long as people are communicating about how they feel about these topics, Josh and I feel like we have accomplished our goal.

DAY 12

November 12, 2010 Okay today was another one of those days where I felt good and then bad and good and then bad. It started at 5:30 this morning with a good, but nervous feeling. I had my first live TV interview. I called in on Skype. I wasn’t able to see them, but they could see me. This adds a level of awkwardness especially paired with the less then stellar audio connection. The interview started out a little rough, but I think I pulled it together. Hopefully, the next one will be better and longer. Actually, we just found out today that someone else will be doing a more in depth piece for CNN. I am looking forward to that. That one I will be doing with Josh. It’s weird to do all these interviews without him. We are excited to be able to talk about the project as a whole instead of me just answering a couple of quick questions. After the interview, I felt good and got a bunch of work done, but then this surge of emotion came over me for the next few hours. I can’t explain it very well. I just wanted to cry, but don’t have a reason why. It’s strange when you are sad, but you don’t have a reason to be. I only have things to be grateful for right now.


Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine

That wave of emotion passed as I had visitors on and offline throughout the day. I had lunch with a new friend, I talked to a cousin via Skype who shared his beautiful Colorado countryside view complete with deer grazing, and then another cousin brought his son buy to say hi. It’s hard not to smile when a little boy has his tiny hands up against the window and keeps saying, “I see you Cristin, I see you.” Then the night started to unfold. Week-ends are the best because there are more people out and about. My friends tend to stop by more frequently as well. Even though I can’t communicate with them very well, it’s still comforting. We joke that they should go home and video chat me because it’s a lot more effective then texting through a window. Although, I am finding neither is a replacement for the real thing.

DAY 13

November 13, 2010 Almost halfway there, funny it seems like a lot longer then 13 days. I am now starting to really get a routine. I have a new friend that stops by almost everyday to ask if I need to be “liberated.” I have figured out that this was the same guy that pounded on the window the first night I was here. Another regular is the old guy that taps his cane on my bedroom window every morning at 8:45 to tell me, “it’s time to get up and start your day.” He does this whether or not I am still actually in bed. I find it kind of endearing. I have figured out what I miss the most. Because I am admittedly addicted to the Internet at this point and because I don’t want to spend my days sitting in the same chair all day, I really miss the ability to use my laptop anywhere. You know say, while sitting on the couch or in bed. I can’t do this currently because I am not supposed to use the computer unless it’s plugged into the projector. For those that haven’t been here in person, the image of what is on my computer screen is projected on the gallery wall at all times. Luckily, a friend emailed me the perfect solution. There is a new gadget that allows me to do this wirelessly. Sometimes technology is awesome. It’s in the mail and I can’t wait for it to get here. 39

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The longer I am in here, the more plugged in I become. This makes me feel like an obsessed 17-year-old more and more each day. Speaking of 17-year-olds that reminds me of a close family friend who did an experiment for a class project. It was a challenge to see if the class could go 1 week without using their computers or cell phones. He made it 4 days. He sited the fact that he had college applications due as his excuse for not making it the entire week. Which could be valid, but still the idea that he can’t make it a whole week a little disturbing. This sense of dependence is easily seen in adults as well. There is something about being plugged in all the time. Another friend realized after getting to the airport for a flight that she left her cell phone at the person’s house where she was staying. She almost didn’t get on the flight because the idea of not being without it was unimaginable. How would she tell her family she arrived at her destination and that she was ready to be picked up? Which brings me to an interesting question. Why is it that we regulate our children’s use of electronics and the Internet, but we don’t regulate our own. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that one. I know the obvious issue will be that of work. I get that. In my job, if I am not reachable 24 hours a day while we are shooting then I don’t have a job, but why do we as a society think it’s okay to expect that of each other? On a happy note, why today was a good day: 1 // Waking up to a sweet note from friend in the window 2 // Not totally making a fool of myself on national television 3 // A modern day mixed tape from a friend 4 // Red wine 5 // Saturday night visitors

DAY 14

November 14, 2010 Today was a lazy Sunday. I tried to unplug as much as I could. I 40

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woke up and made a tasty breakfast, worked out, and then laid around and read. I actually read more then 100 pages today. That’s a first since I have been in here. I feel like it was the first day that my attention span lasted more then 5 minutes. I had a few visitors, but for the most part it was a quiet day. Now I am going to watch an episode of The Wire and call it a night.

DAY 15

November 15, 2010 The audience experience – this is an area Josh and I haven’t spoken much of, but for me has become the most interesting part of the project. Some would define an audience as a ‘group of spectators at a public event.’ However, in today’s digital world we no longer have to have this experience in a group or in public. Today, you can order a movie online, walk out to your mailbox, watch it, and then send it back all without ever seeing another human being. Josh wanted the audience to come in person to see me rather then steaming video online because he wanted people to be able to experience the project in a traditional, non-digital way. He thinks we are getting away from this more and more and I agree. You can argue that the invention of the television changed this social behavior years ago, but it seems that today’s technologies are leading us away from this traditional social behavior more and more all the time. Sure there are plenty of reasons why experiencing things as an audience in your own home is more desirable. For example, you don’t have listen to that person in the back coughing incessantly throughout the movie and you don’t have to pay $20 for popcorn, but I hope that we don’t get too comfortable at home that we lose the desire to be a part of a ‘group of spectators at a public event.’ I have really enjoyed trying to communicate with people through the windows and I applaud those that have done so in creative ways. Like the group that did a little synchronized dance and the wave for me while I was recording my video jour41

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nal a few days ago – luckily I recorded it all. Look for that in the documentary. Josh and I see the windows as a representation of a computer screen. The fact that I am communicating with people in an analog way doesn’t violate the concept of our project. The Internet experience is very interactive and I think that the windows should allow the audience to be interactive. Which is why I want to challenge you as the viewers to come up with creative ways to communicate with me during the next two weeks.

DAY 16

November 16, 2010 Went to bed before 9 PM. Wasn’t feeling well and was too tired to write a blog. I could really use some fresh air.

DAY 17

November 17, 2010 As I continue to try and break my habit of the reactive workflow, I am noticing that I can’t seem to focus. I am making many typos and I’m rereading things multiple times before it sets in. Yesterday and today I have been feeling tired, dehydrated, and generally a little off. I can’t really explain it except it’s similar to how you would feel after working a 15-hour workday without leaving your office or after a 10-hour plane ride. I have been drinking plenty of water, but it doesn’t seem to help. Not until I started feeling dizzy did I start researching what this could be. And I found this: If you are breathing in stale air, you might have started to notice some of the following symptoms: // Dizziness // Nausea // Headaches // Fatigue and exhaustion // Irritability // Anxiety // Depression


Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine

I have experienced all of these with the exception of nausea in the last 48 hours. So it could be the lack of fresh air or it could be that I am getting a cold. Maybe my ‘angels from above’ contaminated my grocery delivery? Is paranoia on the list symptoms too? As I am feeling all of these things, I am trying to take note how my isolation could be affecting these things too. I am starting to feel as though I am not able to express myself fully and I am finding it frustrating when I can’t just pickup the phone to call someone that I need to reach immediately. Of course, I would probably just get their voicemail anyway. Up until this point, I have felt like I have been able to be social and be a part of the outside world. I still feel this way for the most part, but I am noticing is that I miss real moments with people. Video chatting can be awkward because people are so aware of themselves. When you can see yourself in the little square in the corner you can’t help but constantly look at yourself rather then the other person. It is also difficult to read someone’s body language when you can only see them from the chest up. However, as a friend pointed out tonight, we are quick to hate on technology that has changed our lives in drastic ways. We can now video chat on our cell phones, but then are quick to complain when the connection doesn’t allow for a perfectly clear picture or perfect audio. So even though I am one of those complainers, I appreciate the ability to connect with people in that way. Without it, I don’t know if I would have made it 17 days. I am also thankful for my visitors. If it weren’t for two special ones today, I might have stayed in bed. Knowing that people are coming to see me makes me get motivated and I am always happier once I see them.

DAY 18

November 18, 2010 I am feeling 100% better today then yesterday. I can actually focus for more then 5 minutes. I’m not tired and I only feel dizzy occasionally. Considering that there are glue fumes coming 43

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through the vent because the space next door is under construction, I think I am doing pretty well. Not to worry, more angels from upstairs helped me with the ventilation while I hid in the bathroom again. Emotionally, I feel great. I have been invited to a party tonight. The company upstairs, Emma, is having a launch party and they invited me to chat with people via Skype. I am looking forward to it. So between that and feeling like my brain is working again I am happy and I was able to think of something else to discuss on the blog outside of how I am feeling… Do you agree with this or this? I have to agree with Newsweek, but you can decide for yourself. The part of the Newsweek article that resonates with me is that facebook makes people who are already lonely feel less connected, not more connected. It can be a reminder of what they are missing. They see the inside jokes they are not included in and the parties they are not invited to. The odd thing here is that people may compare themselves to these personas of their ‘friends’ which in reality maybe skewed. Social media is a way to constantly promote ourselves in way in which we want others to see us. As someone told me today, “I find the relationship between how interesting one’s life is and how interesting one’s facebook page is to be inversely proportional.” One of the latest trends is to “check-in” in at various locations. If you aren’t familiar it’s a way to tell people exactly where you are and what you are doing via your GPS location. I haven’t understood the impulse to this, but many of my friends use it. Why do people have the urge to do this? Is this to communicate with others or to prove to ourselves that we are doing something cool? Am I missing something? A friend of mine text me the other day to tell me she found comfort in knowing where I am at all times. She said, “It’s like social media took the mystery out of everyone in a way. Everyone’s lives are so accessible, but when someone is so visible like you are it’s comforting and then when you are not it’s like the mystery is back


Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine

and our imagination kicks back in about that person.”

DAY 19

November 19, 2010 I had an interesting interaction with a friend today. I was video chatting with him when I noticed he was distracted and typing on his computer. He said he was Googling the topic we were talking about, but that he was still listening to me. This lead to a longer discussion. When talking to someone in video chat much like a phone call, online chatting, or emailing you can communicate with multiple people at once. So my friend put me to the test to see how well I could manage having two conversations at once. He started typing a chat to me while we were video chatting. He challenged me to keep up both conversations. I failed miserably. He somehow excelled and even posted something on my twitter and my facebook pages while I was trying to keep up with him. But for the record, I don’t think any of the communicating we were doing would be considered a conversation. I have found since I have been in here, my multi-tasking skills are lacking. I thought that because I wouldn’t be working while I was in here that I would have time to slow down my life and focus on one thing at a time. I have to multi-task a million things at once for work and I always feel a sense of relief when I job wraps . I am feeling that way about technology right now. In order to be really social in the digital world I have been using everything all at once. I haven’t set parameters, but now I am thinking I should. In here a lot of what I am multi-tasking is communication with people. I don’t think that I am doing it that well and I am pretty sure people notice that I am trying to keep up multiple conversations or doing other tasks while communicating with them. After reading this article about multitasking and how it effects us, I have decided that for the remainder of the time I am in here, I am going to do my best to only have one conversation at time and only focus on one task at time. So no more answering text messages while on a video chat calls, no more emailing someone while also posting a status update on facebook, and no more making dinner while doing research – that’s how I end up burning 45

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dinner anyway.

DAY 20

November 20, 2010 Twenty days in, wow, I made it two-thirds of the way without losing my mind. Now if I can only make it the next 10. One of the things that I thought would be hard to be in here for is Thanksgiving. But I have to say, I feel incredibly thankful this year so I don’t mind it a bit that I am I stuck in this box. Many of you have asked what I will be doing for the holiday. My original plan was to Skype with family as they sit down for dinner, but now I am secretly hoping that the weather will permit some family and friends to come down with tables and chairs and Skype with me through the glass so we can sort of enjoy the day together. Either way it will be a good day. The Oregonian published an article about the project in today’s paper. (Make sure to scroll down to watch the video as well – Josh gives a great interview explaining the project.) Because of the article, a lot of people came to visit today. Josh was here too for quite a while interviewing people asking them their thoughts on the project for the documentary. I noticed that there was a good mix of people. I think pretty much every age bracket came to say hi or quietly observe. I continue to be amazed at the response and support to the project so thank you to everyone who has taken an interest. One person that I wasn’t sure would understand this project in the beginning was my dad. He is now one of my biggest supporters. Let me explain. My dad has had a computer for a few years, but with the exception of the last two years he mostly just used it for checking his golf handicap and Googling things. He has now started to use it more for research to do with work, but I continue to be his tech support. He is the last person I would ever think would open a facebook account or who spends more then an hour surfing the web each day. He has made fun of me plenty for being that person who is always texting and checking emails on my phone.


Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine

Before this project my dad didn’t have a webcam and had never used Skype. We usually talk every two weeks on the phone. Now that we can video chat, he has called me almost every day. Recently on a video chat, I discovered that my step-mom is really upset with my dad for spending so much time on the computer. She says that they never talk anymore because when she comes home from work he is on the computer until it’s time to go to bed. This surprised me, I had no idea he used the computer that much. A week ago, I asked my dad if he wanted me to help him start a facebook account just so he could see the things I was posting. I explained that he could delete the account as soon as the project was over. He said, “No that’s okay, I don’t want one.” A few days ago on a video chat, of course, he told me he setup a facebook account on his own purely to ‘look’ at what I am doing. That was less then a week ago. He is now reconnecting with buddies that live in various states, sending me politically messages, making comments on lots of post, and making good use of the ‘like’ button. This in a weird way makes me proud that he was able to navigate the tech side, but also makes me really concerned. I am beginning to think that my dad is addicted to facebook and that I may need to do an intervention when this project is over. The good news is that we can both go through the withdrawals together. I am sure I am going to need some help unplugging as well.

DAY 21

November 21, 2010 Sunday is the day of rest so that’s what I tried to do. Here are a few photos of “the audience” today.

DAY 22

November 22, 2010 Each day is getting harder now. I only have 8 days left so that’s what I am trying to remember. I am much more emotional, still feeling a little dizzy and not quite right physically, and noticing that I am really starting to yearn for the physical presence of another person – on the same side of the glass as me.


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Some may think that I am not ‘isolated’ because I can still interact with people on the other side of the glass. It’s true that I can see people and even communicate in short messages back and forth. From the outside, it’s easy to say it’s not isolating when you can have that. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the glass represents a computer screen and the short communications back and forth represent how we tend to communicate online. I haven’t been able to have any real meaningful conversations this way, but just seeing people can make me feel better. However, sometimes it can make me feel worse because it’s frustrating and reminds me that I am not able to interact with them face-to-face. The first thing I do when I see a friend is hug them. Or at least, that’s what I would normally do and now it’s feels uncomfortable to not be able to. Almost like it hurts to not be able to. Especially when I am having a bad day. I am losing interest in video chatting because well it just isn’t the same and again is a reminder that I can’t be face-to-face. It has also proven to be a particularly bad way to communicate when trying to clear the air with someone. The last few days, I have been sending emails and text messages back and forth with one of my closest friends who has done a ton of work on this project for me and Josh – namely this website and hosting our First Friday event among a million other things. Because emails and text messages can easily be misunderstood, we have not been speaking and tonight we tried to talk on Skype, but it’s really not an easy way to communicate serious emotions. You know when you are arguing with someone, then there are some tears, then you hug, and then everyone feels better – well it doesn’t work like that on video chatting. It’s more like, you say a few things, you feel like you are still misunderstood, there is definitely no hugging, and then there’s an awkward goodbye. That’s why video chatting will never be a replacement for the real thing. So tonight I am sad that I can’t communicate effectively how I am feeling to someone I respect greatly and appreciate a ton.


Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine

DAY 23

November 23, 2010 Today I witness something out of the ordinary. A friend of mine came to say hello to me. While we were texting back and forth, a young man that looked as if he has fallen on hard times came up to my friend and started talking to him. My friend went to his car and got some money to give to him. They continued talking, then the man became emotional and my friend tried to console him. At first, my friend touched him on the shoulder to as to provide support and then they hugged. They continued to talk and then they eventually parted ways. I watched all of this from behind the glass without hearing a word, but as I watched I felt like I was seeing something powerful unfold it brought tears to my eyes. It was one of those moments where you feel peace in knowing that complete strangers can find compassion for one another. It is amazing to me how that man’s demeanor changed after they hugged. At least for a few moments he felt better. After my friend left, he still wanted to help this man. He went home and got a sleeping bag and jacket to give to him, but when he returned he couldn’t find him. I kept a lookout and made a note to show him if he came back, but he didn’t. We hope he went to the homeless shelter not far from here. It was one of the few times I have watched what happens outside of these windows. Most of the time I try to ignore what’s going on out there so that I don’t notice that I am being watch. I think I will change that behavior the rest of the time I am in here. After I posted the blog, my friend text messaged these comments to me in regards to meeting the man: “I was standing there trying to have a real human interaction with you (through a glass wall) via text. This guy, this human being fighting for his life, is right next to me (almost in my personal space) trying to have a human interaction, and he’s competing with my iPhone.”


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

“Can’t tell you how many times that same competition for my attention happens on a daily basis (even now, I should be on my way to work.)” “Erika & Owen are always asking me to come away from my work and to unplug. Makes me sad.” “Does it take someone being that fucked-up and in of help to get me to unplug?” “And I wouldn’t even have been there on that corner if it weren’t for your project and the point you are trying to make.” “I think the reality of our condition is that our biology evolves MUCH slower then our ability to manipulate it (technology.)”

DAY 24

November 24, 2010 A question that I have been thinking about a lot lately is what would it be like if it was a man in here instead of a woman. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know it would be different. They would probably ask him questions about what it feels like to live without privacy, but I am pretty sure that people wouldn’t be concerned about his safety nor would they be asking him if he feels objectified. I don’t feel objectified by anyone’s behavior. In fact, people have been incredibly respectful towards me. However, the fact that I am a woman living in a very public way I can’t deny that it’s a very voyeuristic experience for those watching. In some cases though, I think people watching are more uncomfortable then I am. Multiple people have emailed me to tell me they feel so uncomfortable watching me that they look at my surroundings instead of looking directly at me. The fact that I am a woman probably does bring more attention to the project, but it was not a deliberate decision. In fact, Josh was originally going to collaborate with a man who was going to try and create a small carbon footprint. When that didn’t work 50

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out and he and I started collaborating, we didn’t discuss the implications of me being a woman. I think we both though of it in a rather gender neutral way. However, a few days leading up to my coming in here, I did start to get concerned for my safety. I also wondered if anyone would try to flash me or do something else to make me feel uncomfortable. Those thoughts faded quickly once I was in here and nothing of the sort happened. Other then a couple facebook comments on my hair and a phone number taped to the window things have been really quite in the objectification department. I have been reluctant to discuss this element of the project in interviews because the media tends to get fixated on this topic and there is much more to our project then that. I recognize that this is part of the project too and I am happy to discuss it, I just don’t want it to be the only thing we discuss. That being said if we had done this without people being able to see me, it is likely that the response would have been much different. I am most definitely not the first artist to put themselves in this situation to make a statement. It is what gets people’s attention, but I hope that it is the other concepts that continue to hold people’s interest.

DAY 25

November 25, 2010 Today is Thanksgiving so some family and a couple friends stopped by, but it was really cold so they didn’t stay long. I video chatted with my dad and step-mom in California, my mom here in Portland, and a couple friends in other cities. At the end of the night a few friends surprised me by coming down with a laptop so we could Skype through the window, but again they didn’t stay long because it was cold. I am thankful for many, many, things this year, but especially my family and friends who continue to amaze me with their love and support. I am also very thankful for the ability to communicate with them so easily across the country. This project was never 51

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intended to take away from the fact that these technologies do have positive benefits. Because of these technological advances we feel closer to family overseas, people who have physical disabilities who are restricted to their homes feel less isolated, the hearing impaired are able to communicate more effectively, and there are many more examples we could add to the list. Another thing to remember though is that those of us who have accessibility to these technologies are very privileged. There are many that can’t afford these luxuries. We are lucky to have these problems of overuse to think about.

DAY 26

November 26, 2010 ‘The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein asserts that social media and youth culture undercut the skills necessary to be a global citizen when he writes: “We need a steady stream of rising men and women to replenish the institutions, to become strong military leaders and wise political leaders, dedicated journalists and demanding teachers. Judges and muckrakers, scholars and critics and artists. We have the best schools to train them, but social and private environments have eroded.” Do you agree with this assessment or not?’ That was a question posed to me today by a high school student working on a college essay. It’s from a book called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). I can see why he doesn’t like Twitter. He’d have a hard time tweeting that title. Seriously though, it was difficult trying to answer this question through the glass. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know all of the ideas behind it. I find the statement above to be pretty extreme. I do know that Bauerlein argues that reading habits have slipped, along with general knowledge, which I would believe. The conversation that I had with the student end52

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ed up being about the effects of digital technology on him and his friends. I have been happily surprised to get emails from teenagers telling me that they are concerned about how their generation views communication, but they are quick to point out that they feel like they are in the minority. This is the group of people that I find most interesting to hear from because they are our future and they have grown up in a purely digital age. The student that visited me told me that nothing in high school is official until it’s posted on facebook. He also said that he finds it difficult to communicate with others through text messaging because they can easily be misunderstood without hearing the tone in someone’s voice. However, most of his friends think there’s nothing wrong with it. He also expressed that his friends profiles are not representative of who they are. The same goes for his profile. It’s a persona to sell themselves to others. I got an email today from a 16-year-old girl that had a lot of the same concerns. She likes her privacy, but feels like she is the only one. She thinks it’s strange to have pictures out there of herself that she can’t control. The thing she finds most frustrating with facebook and any sort of virtual communication is that she can sit in front of a screen and catch up with so many peoples lives without ever talking or seeing anyone. She feels more connected to words rather then people. She recently deleted her facebook account because of these concerns. However, there are many more youth that choose to live in public rather then in private.

DAY 27

November 27, 2010 Recently, I was talking to a person who I met right before I started this project. I only met him a couple of times and we spoke very little in person, but over the course of the month we have 53

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spoken a lot. When asked if he would consider me a friend he said maybe and then followed that up with he had not doubt that we would be friends after this project ends. He and I chatted a little about how we feel that our “friendship” is similar to how well you’d know someone if you only knew them through their facebook profile. I explained that I would call him a friend because I have talked to him more then my “real friends” this month and that I feel like have gotten to know him, but he doesn’t think that’s enough and I would agree. I really don’t know anything about him except for trivial things and he said the same about me. The reason why we are having a hard time defining our relationship comes down to one thing for me, physical interaction. There is something about being in someone’s physical presence that makes you feel more connected to that person. Another person that I have meet this month, I have shared a lot of personal information with. Based on our conversations, you would think that we are very close, but yet we have just met. Again, there is definitely something still missing. We don’t know how to define our relationship either, but we know that we will be friends when we are able to met in person. In contrast, a friend that I have known for a year feels our friendship is closer because we have been video chatting a lot this month. He doesn’t think we would have been as close are we are if I wasn’t doing this project. This is because it’s rare that he sits down to talk to someone one-on-one like we have. For him, it works because we had already established the physical connection. For me, I still want more, but that could very well be because I don’t have any physical interaction with anyone. We both recognize that the senses are a very big part of how we connection with someone when we first meet them. It could be the smell, sound, touch, or the ability to see someone three dimensionally, but the senses play a very big role. There has been a lot of emphasis put on the word friend this


Public Isolation Project // Cristin Norine

month. Which makes me wonder how we define that and if we need to redefine it for our current times. So I looked up the definition online: 1 // a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard. 2 // a person who gives assistance; patron; supporter 3 // a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile 4 // a member of the same nation, party, etc.

I was surprised at my own reaction. I read this and I thought, maybe we are just forgetting that there are multiple ways to define friend? After all there are adjectives that we can attach to the word, i.e. best, close, etc. So maybe those friends that aren’t really friends could still fit in the category if we think of them as supporters, etc.? The way that we are interacting with people is changing so maybe we need to adjust they way we think about the word.

DAY 28

November 28, 2010 This month, I have seen many of the same faces outside of these windows. Some of whom I have been able to talk to on Facebook, Twitter, or email. Some I haven’t spoken to at all, but we wave and smile. I find a sense of comfort in our daily interaction. When you spend this amount of time seeing the same people you feel like you know them. Like the gentleman who taps on the window to say good morning or the group of day laborers who check-in to make sure I am okay and sometimes like to play friendly tricks on me. I have grown a sense of fondness for them, but I don’t know anything about them. I wonder what their lives are like and how they spend the rest of their days. I recognize that it would have been unlikely for our paths to cross if I was not doing this project. And I wonder how would this be different if I was standing on the corner instead of inside this glass box. Would they show empathy for me or me for them?


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I will miss seeing these people, as I will miss the interactions that I have been able to have with those new friends online. If I had covered the windows so that I couldn’t see out like I had originally planned, I would not have had the same experience and although that may have made more of a legitimate social experiment, I am okay with that because this is an art installation and those people have become part of the project. The media coverage has also had an effect on the project and I have wondered many times if it would have been better to ignore these requests. It’s not something that Josh or I ever planned for. In fact, I have been uncomfortable with all the attention, but the media has made it possible to talk to people all over the world about this topic. People have asked me frequently, why are you doing this? The answer is simple, to start a conversation. I don’t pretend to know the answers to all of the questions we have. I only hope to shed light on the things that have I noticed changing in my relationships with others. This conversation doesn’t have to be with me. In fact, I want people to discuss this among themselves. Art can be a useful tool to get this started. So even though some may think introspective art exhibitions are boring, that’s okay. Because for me the fact that people are talking about this and how it affects them makes me feel like the project was a success.

DAY 29

November 29, 2010 What is a month in public isolation like? Well, it’s not isolating in a traditional sense – it’s public. There is no place to hide except the bathroom (which I haven’t done but wanted to many times) or under the covers (which I have many times, but doesn’t give much comfort.) It’s a place where your brain is in constant motion and you can’t seem to stop it long enough to focus on one thing. It’s where the notifications of text messages and emails are continually pouring in all the while people need your attention at the window. Everything you do seems to be fragmented 56

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so much so that you are constantly rewriting, rereading, and asking people to repeat what they just said. You can’t seem to write a simple text without a typo. You become so obsessed with the idea that you are behind on emails and other work that you hardly leave the computer to take a break and do something else. In a word, you become addicted to these limited forms of communication. Which is right about the time you begin to feel so incredibly overwhelmed that you wish it would all to go away. Through this experience, I have been reminded that human beings need rest and I feel as though I have had little. It’s hard to feel at rest when you are constantly being watched on and offline. I never turned my phone off and my laptop was only shut off at night while I slept. Being accessible all of the time has taken a toll on my body. Public isolation is much like many of our lives. Someone described it perfectly to me in an email, “There are many people living just like you through the screens of their phones and laptops. These machines, always on, always open, are the equivalent of the windows you have around you, allowing anyone to contact them, wake them and take their attention at any time.”

DAY 30

November 30, 2010 What have I learned? This will be a question a lot of people will be asking me. The answer is not so simple. I don’t think I will know for weeks or months what all this meant and how it has changed me. What I do know is that Josh and I have just scratched the surface with this project. There are many more conversations to be had about how all of these new technologies affect us physically, emotionally, and socially. In that regard, 30 days most definitely is not enough time. However, it was enough time for me to realize that I can’t sustain all of the technologies the way I have been. I will not be deleting my facebook account after this, but I will be using it much differ57

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ently. I have already taken the app off my phone and I will be cutting back the number of people I have as friends. For me, the key is keeping a balance and remembering the importance of fostering my relationships face-to-face as much as possible. What are you going to do when you get out? This is the other question people want to know the answer to. To start, I will be celebrating tonight with many of you. I look forward to hugging my family and friends, but I am starting to wonder if all the noises, smells, and physical contact will put me into sensory overload. It’s possible and that’s okay. It will still be fun. After that I will be unplugging for a little while. As I mentioned, I will be cutting back on my facebook friends, but I want to thank all of the supporters and everyone I have had conversations with this month. It’s those discussions that made this project a success in my mind and I hope that you will continue the conversation with those in your lives.

THE DAYS AFTER... December 7, 2010

The day after I was “released” from the gallery space, mentally I felt great, but physically I felt ill. It took me a few days to start feeling normal again. I lost six pounds over the course of the month and for someone as small as I am that’s a lot. It’s now a week later and I have almost gained it all back and I feel 100% better physically. I spend the first two days out of the gallery cleaning out the space and returning all the furniture. I really didn’t want to be in there, but I had to. It felt claustrophobic and the difference in the air quality was very noticeable. Even others noticed how stale the air felt. Anytime someone needed to talk to me on the phone or in person, I took the conversation outside. The hugs feel great and the smells have been strong. It’s amazing how sensitive you can be when you’ve been missing something. I took a few days off of the computer right after I got out. I only checked email, but didn’t respond to anything unless it was ur58

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gent. It is more apparent to me now that I am out, how much I was addicted to the Internet and my phone. At the “opening” party, Josh took my purse to put it away, but first I asked to get my phone. He said you don’t need it, but I felt like I did. Thankfully, he didn’t let me keep it. Now that I am no longer multi-tasking various communications, my attention span is better. So much so that I have started reading a book and I don’t make as many mistakes typing and texting. I am still trying to only do one thing at once. I credit that as the reason my anxiety and stress have subsided. It feels really good to finally be able to relax without being watched and to not be accessible 24/7. It also feels really good to be able to express myself fully. Now when I am frustrated that someone misunderstood me in a text, I ask if we discuss it on the phone or in person. It’s nice to have the option.


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Hooked on Tech // Matt Richtel


When one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it. Not just for a day or two, but 12 days. He finally saw it while sifting through old messages: a big company wanted to buy his Internet start-up. “I stood up from my desk and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ ” Mr. Campbell said. “It’s kind of hard to miss an e-mail like that, but I did.” The message had slipped by him amid an electronic flood: two computer screens alive with e-mail, instant messages, online chats, a Web browser and the computer code he was writing. (View an interactive panorama of Mr. Campbell’s workstation.) While he managed to salvage the $1.3 million deal after apologizing to his suitor, Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of

the deluge of data. Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets from his electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he has trouble focusing on his family. His wife, Brenda, complains, “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.” This is your brain on computers. Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored. The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for 61

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millions of people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life. While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers. “The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess. Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity. More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for


more exciting pursuits. For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows. The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.” Mr. Campbell, 43, came of age with the personal computer, and he is a heavier user of technology than most. But researchers say the habits and struggles of Mr. Campbell and his family typify what many experience — and what many more will, if trends continue. For him, the tensions feel increasingly acute, and the effects harder to shake. The Campbells recently moved to California from Oklahoma to start a software venture. Mr. Campbell’s life revolves around computers. He goes to sleep with a laptop or iPhone on his chest, and when he wakes, he goes online. He and Mrs.

Hooked on Tech // Matt Richtel

Campbell, 39, head to the tidy kitchen in their four-bedroom hillside rental in Orinda, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, where she makes breakfast and watches a TV news feed in the corner of the computer screen while he uses the rest of the monitor to check his e-mail. Major spats have arisen because Mr. Campbell escapes into video games during tough emotional stretches. On family vacations, he has trouble putting down his devices. When he rides the subway to San Francisco, he knows he will be offline 221 seconds as the train goes through a tunnel. Their 16-year-old son, Connor, tall and polite like his father, recently received his first C’s, which his family blames on distraction from his gadgets. Their 8-year-old daughter, Lily, like her mother, playfully tells her father that he favors technology over family. “I would love for him to totally unplug, to be totally engaged,” says Mrs. Campbell, who adds that he becomes “crotchety until he gets his fix.” But she would not try to force a change. “He loves it. Technology is part of the fabric of who he is,” she says. “If I hated technology, I’d be hating him, and a part of who my son is too.”

ALWAYS ON Mr. Campbell, whose given name is Thomas, had an early start with tech-

nology in Oklahoma City. When he was in third grade, his parents bought him Pong, a video game. Then came a string of game consoles and PCs, which he learned to program. In high school, he balanced computers, basketball and a romance with Brenda, a cheerleader with a gorgeous singing voice. He studied too, with focus, uninterrupted by email. “I did my homework because I needed to get it done,” he said. “I didn’t have anything else to do.” He left college to help with a family business, then set up a lawn mowing service. At night he would read, play video games, hang out with Brenda and, as she remembers it, “talk a lot more.” In 1996, he started a successful Internet provider. Then he built the start-up that he sold for $1.3 million in 2003 to LookSmart, a search engine. Mr. Campbell loves the rush of modern life and keeping up with the latest information. “I want to be the first to hear when the aliens land,” he said, laughing. But other times, he fantasizes about living in pioneer days when things moved more slowly: “I can’t keep everything in my head.” No wonder. As he came of age, so did a new era of data and communication. At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares


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with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools. As computers have changed, so has the understanding of the human brain. Until 15 years ago, scientists thought the brain stopped developing after childhood. Now they understand that its neural networks continue to develop, influenced by things like learning skills. So not long after Eyal Ophir arrived at Stanford in 2004, he wondered whether heavy multitasking might be leading to changes in a characteristic of the brain long thought immutable: that humans can process only a single stream of information at a time. Going back a half-century, tests had shown that the brain could barely process two streams, and could not simultaneously make decisions about them. But Mr. Ophir, a student-turned-researcher, thought multitaskers might be rewiring themselves to handle the load. His passion was personal. He had spent seven years in Israeli intelligence after being weeded out of the air force — partly, he felt, because he was not a good multitasker. Could his brain be retrained? Mr. Ophir, like others around the country studying how technology


bent the brain, was startled by what he discovered.

THE MYTH OF MULTITASKING The test subjects were divided into two groups: those classified as heavy multitaskers based on their answers to questions about how they used technology, and those who were not. In a test created by Mr. Ophir and his colleagues, subjects at a computer were briefly shown an image of red rectangles. Then they saw a similar image and were asked whether any of the rectangles had moved. It was a simple task until the addition of a twist: blue rectangles were added, and the subjects were told to ignore them. (Play a game testing how well you filter out distractions.) The multitaskers then did a significantly worse job than the nonmultitaskers at recognizing whether red rectangles had changed position. In other words, they had trouble filtering out the blue ones — the irrelevant information. So, too, the multitaskers took longer than non-multitaskers to switch among tasks, like differentiating vowels from consonants and then odd from even numbers. The multitaskers were shown to be less efficient at juggling problems. (Play a game testing how well you switch between tasks.)

Hooked on Tech // Matt Richtel

Other tests at Stanford, an important center for research in this fast-growing field, showed multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work. Researchers say these findings point to an interesting dynamic: multitaskers seem more sensitive than non-multitaskers to incoming information. The results also illustrate an age-old conflict in the brain, one that technology may be intensifying. A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated. Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming e-mail can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children. “Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who

think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.” Mr. Nass says the Stanford studies are important because they show multitasking’s lingering effects: “The scary part for guys like Kord is, they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.” Melina Uncapher, a neurobiologist on the Stanford team, said she and other researchers were unsure whether the muddied multitaskers were simply prone to distraction and would have had trouble focusing in any era. But she added that the idea that information overload causes distraction was supported by more and more research. A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus. Stress hormones have been shown to reduce short-term memory, said Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Preliminary research shows some people can more easily juggle multiple information streams. These “supertaskers” represent less than 3 percent of the population, according to scientists at the University of Utah. Other research shows computer use has neurological advantages. In imaging studies, Dr. Small ob-


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served that Internet users showed greater brain activity than nonusers, suggesting they were growing their neural circuitry. At the University of Rochester, researchers found that players of some fast-paced video games can track the movement of a third more objects on a screen than non players. They say the games can improve reaction and the ability to pick out details amid clutter. “In a sense, those games have a very strong both rehabilitative and educational power,” said the lead researcher, Daphne Bavelier, who is working with others in the field to channel these changes into realworld benefits like safer driving. There is a vibrant debate among scientists over whether technology’s influence on behavior and the brain is good or bad, and how significant it is. “The bottom line is, the brain is wired to adapt,” said Steven Yantis, a professor of brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s no question that rewiring goes on all the time,” he added. But he said it was too early to say whether the changes caused by technology were materially different from others in the past. Mr. Ophir is loath to call the cognitive changes bad or good, though the impact on analysis and creativity worries him. He is not just worried about oth-


er people. Shortly after he came to Stanford, a professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying full attention and not using a computer or phone. But he recently began using an iPhone and noticed a change; he felt its pull, even when playing with his daughter. “The media is changing me,” he said. “I hear this internal ping that says: check e-mail and voice mail.” “I have to work to suppress it.” Kord Campbell does not bother to suppress it, or no longer can.

INTERRUPTED BY A CORPSE It is a Wednesday in April, and in 10 minutes, Mr. Campbell has an online conference call that could determine the fate of his new venture, called Loggly. It makes software that helps companies understand the clicking and buying patterns of their online customers. Mr. Campbell and his colleagues, each working from a home office, are frantically trying to set up a pro-gram that will let them share images with executives at their prospective partner. But at the moment when Mr. Campbell most needs to focus on that urgent task, something else competes for his attention: “Man Found Dead Inside His Business.” That is the tweet that appears on the left-most of Mr. Campbell’s array of monitors, which he has expanded to three screens, at times adding a laptop and an iPad.

Hooked on Tech // Matt Richtel

On the left screen, Mr. Campbell follows the tweets of 1,100 people, along with instant messages and group chats. The middle monitor displays a dark field filled with computer code, along with Skype, a service that allows Mr. Campbell to talk to his colleagues, sometimes using video. The monitor on the right keeps e-mail, a calendar, a Web browser and a music player. Even with the meeting fast approaching, Mr. Campbell cannot resist the tweet about the corpse. He clicks on the link in it, glances at the article and dismisses it. “It’s some article about something somewhere,” he says, annoyed by the ads for jeans popping up. The program gets fixed, and the meeting turns out to be fruitful: the partners are ready to do business. A colleague says via instant message: “YES.” Other times, Mr. Campbell’s information juggling has taken a more serious toll. A few weeks earlier, he once again overlooked an e-mail message from a prospective investor. Another time, Mr. Campbell signed the company up for the wrong type of business account on Amazon. com, costing $300 a month for six months before he got around to correcting it. He has burned hamburgers on the grill, forgotten to pick up the children and lingered in the bathroom playing video games on an iPhone.

Mr. Campbell can be unaware of his own habits. In a two-and-a-half hour stretch one recent morning, he switched rapidly between e-mail and several other programs, according to data from RescueTime, which monitored his computer use with his permission. But when asked later what he was doing in that period, Mr. Campbell said he had been on a long Skype call, and “may have pulled up an e-mail or two.” The kind of disconnection Mr. Campbell experiences is not an entirely new problem, of course. As they did in earlier eras, people can become so lost in work, hobbies or TV that they fail to pay attention to family. Mr. Campbell concedes that, even without technology, he may work or play obsessively, just as his father immersed himself in crossword puzzles. But he says this era is different because he can multitask anyplace, anytime. “It’s a mixed blessing,” he said. “If you’re not careful, your marriage can fall apart or your kids can be ready to play and you’ll get distracted.”

THE TOLL ON CHILDREN Father and son sit in armchairs. Controllers in hand, they engage in a fierce video game battle, displayed on the nearby flat-panel TV, as Lily watches. They are playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a cartoonish animated fight between characters that battle


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using anvils, explosives and other weapons. “Kill him, Dad,” Lily screams. To no avail. Connor regularly beats his father, prompting expletives and, once, a thrown pillow. But there is bonding and mutual respect. “He’s a lot more tactical,” says Connor. “But I’m really good at quick reflexes.” Screens big and small are central to the Campbell family’s leisure time. Connor and his mother relax while watching TV shows like “Heroes.” Lily has an iPod Touch, a portable DVD player and her own laptop, which she uses to watch videos, listen to music and play games. Lily, a second-grader, is allowed only an hour a day of unstructured time, which she often spends with her devices. The laptop can consume her. “When she’s on it, you can holler her name all day and she won’t hear,” Mrs. Campbell said. Researchers worry that constant digital stimulation like this creates attention problems for children with brains that are still developing, who already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses. Connor’s troubles started late last year. He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, a social site with news links that he and his


father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend. When he studied, “a little voice would be saying, ‘Look up’ at the computer, and I’d look up,” Connor said. “Normally, I’d say I want to only read for a few minutes, but I’d search every corner of Reddit and then check Facebook.” His Web browsing informs him. “He’s a fact hound,” Mr. Campbell brags. “Connor is, other than programming, extremely technical. He’s 100 percent Internet savvy.” But the parents worry too. “Connor is obsessed,” his mother said. “Kord says we have to teach him balance.” So in January, they held a family meeting. Study time now takes place in a group setting at the dinner table after everyone has finished eating. It feels, Mr. Campbell says, like togetherness.

NO VACATIONS For spring break, the family rented a cottage in Carmel, Calif. Mrs. Campbell hoped everyone would unplug. But the day before they left, the iPad from Apple came out, and Mr. Campbell snapped one up. The next night, their first on vacation, “We didn’t go out to dinner,” Mrs. Campbell mourned. “We just sat there on our devices.” She rallied the troops the next day to the aquarium. Her husband joined them for a bit but then begged

Hooked on Tech // Matt Richtel

out to do e-mail on his phone. Later she found him playing video games. The trip came as Mr. Campbell was trying to raise several million dollars for his new venture, a goal that he achieved. Brenda said she understood that his pursuit required intensity but was less understanding of the accompanying surge in video game. His behavior brought about a discussion between them. Mrs. Campbell said he told her that he was capable of logging off, citing a trip to Hawaii several years ago that they called their second honeymoon. “What trip are you thinking about?” She said she asked him. She recalled that he had spent two hours a day online in the hotel’s business center. On Thursday, their fourth day in Carmel, Mr. Campbell spent the day at the beach with his family. They flew a kite and played whiffle ball. Connor unplugged too. “It changes the mood of everything when everybody is present,” Mrs. Campbell said. The next day, the family drove home, and Mr. Campbell disappeared into his office. Technology use is growing for Mrs. Campbell as well. She divides her time between keeping the books of her husband’s company, homemaking and working at the school library. She checks e-mail 25 times a

day, sends texts and uses Facebook. Recently, she was baking peanut butter cookies for Teacher Appreciation Day when her phone chimed in the living room. She answered a text, then became lost in Facebook, forgot about the cookies and burned them. She started a new batch, but heard the phone again, got lost in messaging, and burned those too. Out of ingredients and shamed, she bought cookies at the store. She feels less focused and has trouble completing projects. Some days, she promises herself she will ignore her device. “It’s like a diet — you have good intentions in the morning and then you’re like, ‘There went that,’ ” she said. Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room. “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.” That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

GADGETS & ROBOTS Jean Beaudrillard


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard


We have now considered objects from the point of view of their objective systematization (interior design and atmosphere) and from that of their subjective systematization (collecting). Let us next turn our attention to their connotations - and hence to their ideological significance.

TECHNICAL CONNOTATION: AUTOMATISM If formal connotation is summed up in the word FASHION, technical connotation is epitomized by the notion of AUTOMATISM, which is the major concept of the modern object’s mechanistic triumphalism, the ideal of its mythology. What automatism means is that the object, in its particular function, takes on the connotation of an absolute. An example borrowed from Gilbett Simondon well illustrates this slipping to technical connotation via the idea of automatism. From the strictly technological standpoint, the elimination of the starting-handle makes the mechanical operation of cars more complicated, because it subordinates it to the use of electrical power from a storage battery that is external to the system. This increased complication - and abstractness — is nevertheless presented as progress, as a sign of modernity. Thanks to the connotation of automatism, which in fact masks a structural weakness, cars with starting-handles now seem outdated, and those without, modern. Of course, one might argue that the lack of a starting handle serves a function every bit as real as the handle itself, namely the satisfaction of the desire for automatism. In 71

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the same way the chrome-plating and giant tail fins that weigh a car down could be said to serve the function of satisfying the demand for status. But the fulfilment of such secondary functions clearly militates against the material structure of the technical object. Even though so many unintegrated features remain both in the engine and in the external design of cars, the manufacturers tout excessive automatism in accessories as the last word in mechanical achievement. The same goes for the systematic resort to servomechanisms, whose most immediate effect is to render an object more fragile, thus raising its cost, shortening its effective life, and hastening its replacement.

‘FUNCTIONAL’ TRANSCENDENCE The degree to which a machine approaches perfection is thus everywhere presented as proportional to its degree of automatism. The fact is, however, that automating machines means sacrificing a very great deal of potential functionality. In order to automate a practical object, it is necessary to stereotype it in its function, thus making it more fragile. Far from having any intrinsic technical advantages, automatism always embodies the risk of arresting technical advance, for so long as an object has not been automated it remains susceptible of redesign, of self transcendence through incorporation into a larger functional whole. When it becomes automatic, on the other hand, its function is fulfilled, certainly, but it is also hermetically sealed. Automatism amounts to a closing-off, to a sort of functional self-sufficiency which exiles man to the irresponsibility of a mere spectator. Contained within it is the dream of a dominated world, of a formally perfected technicity that serves an inert and dreamy humanity. Current technological thinking rejects this tendency in principle, and holds that true perfection in machines — one genuinely founded on an increasing level of technicity, and hence expressing true functionality — depends not on more automatism but on a certain margin of indeterminacy which lets the machine respond to information from outside. The highly technical machine is thus an open structure, and a universe of such openended machines presupposes man as organizer and living interpreter. But even if the automatizing tendency is repulsed at the highest technological level, the fact remains that in practice it is


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

continually pushing objects into a dangerous abstractness. Automatism is king, and its fascination is indeed so powerful precisely because it is not that of a technical rationality: rather, we come under its spell because we experience it as a basic desire, as the imaginary truth of the object, in comparison with which the object’s structure and concrete function leave us cold. Consider merely our continual wishing for everything to work by itself, for every object to perform this miracle of minimum effort in the carrying out of its assigned function. For the user, automatism means a wondrous absence of activity, and the enjoyment this procures is comparable to that derived, on another plane, from seeing without being seen: an esoteric satisfaction experienced at the most everyday level. The fact that every automated object may lead us into often unchangeable stereotypical behaviour constitutes no real challenge to this immediate demand of ours: the desire for automatism is there first — it takes priority over objective practice. And if it is so firmly rooted that the myth of its formal realization presents an almost material obstacle to the open-ended structuring of techniques and needs, the reason is that it is rooted in objects as our own image. Because the automated object ‘works by itself, its resemblance to the autonomous human being is unmistakable, and the fascination thus created carries the day. We are in the presence of a new anthropomorphism. Formerly the image of man was clearly imprinted in the morphology and the manner of use of tools, of furniture, or of the house itself. In the perfected technical object this compliance has been destroyed, but it has been replaced by a symbolism of superstructural rather than primary functions: it is no longer his gestures, his energy, his needs and the image of his body that man projects into automated objects, but instead the autonomy of his consciousness, his power of control, his own individual nature, his personhood. This supra-functionality of human consciousness is, in the end, what automatism strives to echo in the object. In a way that parallels the formal self-transcendence of the human individual, automatism aspires to be a sort of ne plus ultra of the object, enabling it to transcend its function. And automatism, too, uses a kind of formal abstraction to conceal structural defects, defence mechanisms and objective determinants. That perfect


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and perfectly autonomous monad which is the governing dream of subjectivity is thus also very clearly the dream that haunts objects. Emancipated from its former naive animism and too-human meanings, the object finds the elements of its modern mythology in its own technical existence (thanks to the projection into the technical domain of the absolute formal autonomy of individual consciousness). And automatism, as one of the paths that this object continues to follow, invariably leads to — oversignification of man in his formal essence and in his unconscious desires - thus setting up an obstinate barrier to the object’s own concrete structural goal, which is ‘to change life’. Man, for his part, by automating his objects and rendering them multifunctional instead of striving to structure his practices in a fluid and open-ended manner, reveals in a way what part he himself plays in a technical society: that of the most beautiful all-purpose object, that of an instrumental model. In this sense automatism and personalization do not contradict one another in the slightest. Automatism is simply personalization dreamt in terms of the object. It is the most finished, the most sublime form of the inessential - of that marginal differentiation which subtends man’s personalized relationship to his objects.

FUNCTIONAL ABERRATION: GADGETS Automatism per se is simply a technical deviation, but it opens the door to a whole world of functional delusion, to the entire range of manufactured objects in which a role is played by irrational complexity, obsessive detail, eccentric technicity or gratuitous formalism. In this poly-, para-, hyper- and meta functional sphere, the object, at its farthest remove from objective determinants, is completely taken over by the imaginary. We have seen that automatism always embodies an irrational projection of consciousness; in this ‘schizofunctional’ world, however, nothing leaves a trace except obsessions pure and simple. There is a complete pataphysics of the object awaiting description here, a science of imaginary technical solutions. If we ask, apropos of the objects that surround us, what is structural and what is a-structural about them, or if we ask to what extent they are technical objects and to what extent acces-


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

sories, gadgets or merely formal markers, we shall soon conclude — our highly neo-technical environment notwithstanding — that we live in a largely rhetorical and allegorical atmosphere. Indeed, it is the baroque, with its predilection for the allegorical, its new discursive individualism based on redundant forms and trickedup materials, and its demiurgic formalism, that is the true inaugurating moment of the modern age. The baroque clearly foreshadows on the artistic plane all the themes and myths of our technological civilization, right down to its paroxysmic formalism of detail and movement. Once this point is reached, the technical balance of objects is upset. Too many accessory functions are introduced from the point of view of which the object answers no need other than the need to function; it answers, in other words, to the functional superstition according to which for any operation there is — there must be — a corresponding object, and if none exists then one must be invented. As in the tinkering tradition of the Concours Lepine. No true innovation is to be seen, but by juggling stereotyped techniques objects are created that are at once incredibly specific in their function and absolutely useless. So precise is the function proposed, in fact, that it can only be a pretext: such objects are subjectively functional, that is to say, obsessional. As for the opposite, ‘aesthetic’, approach, which omits function altogether and exalts the beauty of pure mechanism, this ultimately amounts to the same thing. For the inventor at the Concours Lepine, the creation of a solar-powered boiled-egg opener or some other equally dotty gadget is merely an excuse for obsessive manipulation and contemplation. Like all obsessions, moreover, this particular variety has its poetic side, as manifested to a greater or lesser degree in Picabia’s machines, in Tinguely’s mechanical constructions, in the simple clockwork of a discarded watch, or in any object whose original use we simply cannot remember but those mechanism still arouses a sort of delighted fascination in us. Something that serves no purpose whatsoever may in this sense still serve us.

PSEUDO-FUNCTIONALITY: GIZMOS This empty functionalism is well summed up by the word ‘gizmo’. A gizmo does have an operational value, but whereas the func-


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tion of a machine is explicit in its name, a gizmo, in the context of the functional paradigm, is always an indeterminate term with, in addition, the pejorative connotation of ‘the thing without a name’ or ‘the thing I cannot name’ (there is something immoral about an object whose exact purpose one does not know). The fact remains that it works. As a sort of dangling parenthesis, as an object detached from its function, what the ‘gizmo’ or the ‘thingummyjig’ suggests is a vague and limitless functionality — or perhaps better the mental picture of an imaginary functionality. It would be impossible to classify the whole range of obsessional poly functionality. From Marcel Aymes ‘vistemboir, whose nature is a mystery to everyone, though everyone is sure it does have a use, to that ‘Something’ which in the Radio Luxembourg guessing game is the subject of endless questions whereby thousands of listeners try to find the name of some minute item (e.g. the strip made of a special stainless alloy that is fitted in a slide trombone which ensures that ... etc., etc.), and from Sunday-afternoon pottering to James Bond-style super-gadgetry, there extends a panoply of wondrous accessories culminating in the immense industrial output of everyday objects — gadgets or gizmos — whose obsessional degree of specialization easily matches the old-fashioned baroque imagination of the amateur inventor. What is one to say of the ultrasound washing-up machine which removes encrusted food from dishes without the intervention of the human hand, the toaster with a nine-level browning control, or the electric cocktail swizzle-stick? At the serial and industrial level, what was once merely charming eccentricity or individual neurosis becomes a daily and ceaseless assault on the mind, which is either overtaken by panic or overexcited by sheer detail... It is frightening to consider just how many things fall into the category of gizmos, just how many of our objects are covered by this empty concept. It is not difficult to see that the proliferation of technical detail here corresponds in each of us to an immense conceptual failure, and that our language is a very long way indeed behind the structures and functional articulation of the objects that we use, as it were, naturally. Our civilization has more and more objects and fewer and fewer names for them. !The


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

word ‘machine’, in becoming applicable to the realm of social labour, has acquired a precise enough generic sense; as recently as the late eighteenth century, however, it had much the same meaning as ‘gizmo’ today. Words like ‘gizmo’ now cover all those things which, on account of their specialization and because the answer to no true collective need, cannot be referred to as machines, and thus assume a mythological character. If ‘machine’ belongs to the sphere of functional ‘language’, ‘gizmo’ belongs to the subjective sphere of ‘speech’. It goes without saying that in a civilization where such unnameable objects (or at any rate objects designated only in the loosest way, by means of neologism or paraphrase) are multiplying, resistance to mythology is perforce far weaker than in civilizations whose objects are clearly known and denominated down to their most detailed aspects. Today we live in a world of what Georges Friedmann calls Sunday drivers — people who have never opened the bonnets of their cars, people for whom functioning is not merely the function of things but also their mystery. If we grant that our environment, and by extension our everyday view of the world, is thus largely shaped by functional simulacra, we are bound to ask what superstition serves to maintain and compensate for this conceptual inadequacy. What exactly is the key to this mysterious functioning of objects? The answer is a vague but tenacious obsession with a world—machine with a universal mechanism. The machine and the gizmo are mutually exclusive. It is not that the machine is a perfected form, nor that the gizmo is a degraded one: rather, the two are different in kind: the first operating in the real, the second in the imaginary realm. Machine signifies, and in so doing structures, a particular real practical whole; ‘gizmo’ signifies nothing more than a formal operation - though that operation is the total operation of the world. The virtue of a gizmo may be ridiculous in reality, but in the imagination It is universal. The electrical whatsit that extracts stones from fruit or some new vacuum-cleaner accessory forgetting under sideboards are perhaps in the end not especially practical, but they do serve to reinforce the belief that for every need there is a possible mechanical answer, that every practical (and even psychological) problem may be foreseen, forestalled, resolved in advance by means of a technical object


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that is rational and adapted — perfectly adapted. As for what exactly it is adapted to, that is of no consequence. The important thing is that the world should present the appearance of having already been operated on . The real referent of the gizmo is not a plum stone or the narrow space under the sideboard, but nature in its entirety reinvented in accordance with the technical reality principle: a total simulacrum of an automated nature. This is its myth and its mystery. And like all mythologies, this one too has two sides to it: it mystifies man by submerging him in a functional dream, but it equally well mystifies the object by submerging it in the irrationality of human determinants. There is a close collusion between the human-all-too-human and the functional-alltoo-functional: the impregnation of the human world by technical goals invariably implies technology’s impregnation by human ones - for better or for worse. We are, however, far more sensitive to human relationships being interfered with by the absurd and totalitarian concerns of technology than we are to technological development being interfered with by the absurd and totalitarian concerns of human beings. Yet it is unquestionably human irrationality and its figments which fuel the tendency for any machine to take on gizmo-like properties; it is they, in other words, which agitate functional phantasy behind any concrete functional praxis. The true functionality of the gizmo is unconscious in character — hence its fascination for us. That it should be absolutely functional, absolutely adapted (though to what?), shows that this functionality and this adaptation must needs refer to a demand of a non-practical kind. The myth of a wonder-working functionality of the world is correlated with the phantasy of a wonder-working functionality of the body. There is a direct link between the paradigm of technical action executed by the world and the paradigm of sexual action executed by the subject; and ill this perspective the gizmo, the ultimate tool, is basically a substitute for the phallus, the operative medium of function par excellence. Moreover, any object has something of the gizmo about it, for in proportion as its practical instrumentality fades. It becomes susceptible of cathexis by a libidinal instrumentality. This is already true of the child’s toy, or of any stone or piece of wood as perceived by ‘primitives’; as we have seen, ‘uncivilized’


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

people can fetishize a simple pen, and ‘civilized’ ones can do the same with absolutely any abandoned mechanical object or ancient artefact. For any object whatsoever, in fact, the reality principle maybe put in brackets. No sooner does an object lose its concrete practical aspect than it is transferred to the realm of mental practices. In short, behind every real object there is a dream object. We have already discussed the case of antiques in this context. In their case, however, the transcendence or mental abstraction concerned the material or the form, and was bound up with a regressive birth complex; pseudo-functional objects or ‘gizmos’, by contrast, are bound up with an abstract transcendence of the object’s functioning, and hence with a projective, phallic power complex. Let me stress once more that this is an analytic distinction: whereas objects normally have but one real function, narrowly defined, their ‘mental’ functionality is unlimited, and any number of phantasies may have a place therein. A distinct evolution in their imaginary aspect is nevertheless signalled by the shift from an animistic to an energetic structure: traditional objects tended to bear witness to our presence, being static symbols of our bodily organs, but technical objects hold a different kind of fascination in that they evoke a virtual energy, and are thus less receptacles of our presence than vehicles of our dynamic self image. Here too, moreover, a reservation is called for, because the operation of energy itself tends to be down-played in the most modern devices, with their encapsulated and elliptical forms. In a world dominated by communications and information, the sight of energy at work has become a rarity. Miniaturization and gestural depletion erode symbolic expressiveness. But we may take comfort in the fact that even if objects sometimes escape practical human control, they never escape the imagination. Modes of the imaginary follow modes of technological evolution, and it is therefore to be expected that the next mode of technical efficiency will give rise to a new imaginary mode. At present its traits are difficult to discern, but perhaps, in the wake of the animistic and energetic modes, we shall need to turn our attention to the structures of a cybernetic imaginary mode whose central myth


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will no longer be that of an absolute organicism, nor that of an absolute functionalism, but instead that of an absolute interrelatedness of the world. For the time being our everyday environment remains unevenly divided between the three. The old sideboard, the car and the tape recorder exist side by side in the one sphere, even though their imaginary modes of existence, just like their technical modes of existence, differ radically. At all events, whatever the functioning of the object may be like, we invariably experience it as OUR functioning: whatever the object’s efficient mode — even should it be absurd, as in the case of the ‘gizmo’ — we project ourselves into that efficiency. In fact we do so especially when it is absurd, as witness the old phrase, at once magical and comical, according to which a thing ‘might always come in useful’: while it is true that objects do indeed serve specific purposes at times, they are much more commonly good for everything and nothing, and in that case their true utility lies in the very fact that they ‘might always come in useful’.

META FUNCTIONALITY: ROBOTS The ultimate expression of such imaginary projection is the object as dreamt up by science fiction — the pure realm of the gizmo. We should be greatly mistaken were we to view science fiction as an escape from everyday reality: on the contrary, it is an extrapolation from the irrational tendencies of that reality through the free exercise of narrative invention. Although it is an invaluable witness to the civilization of the object, precisely because it heightens certain aspects thereof, science fiction has absolutely no prophetic value. It has practically nothing to do with the real future of technological development, for which it accounts in the future perfect tense, so to speak, drawing for nourishment on sublime archaisms and on a repertory of acquired forms and functions. It contains little in the way of structural invention, but it is an inexhaustible mine of imaginary solutions to stereotyped needs and functional requirements of an often marginal or mind-boggling variety. In a way science fiction is the apotheosis of tinkering. But while its true exploratory value may be very feeble, it supplies us with a wealth of information on the unconscious. In particular, science fiction demonstrates what we have recognized as the most profound — albeit the most


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

irrational — feature of the modern object, namely its automatism. When it comes down to it, the genre has only ever invented one super-object: the ROBOT. Soon man will no longer even have to steer his lawn mower on a Sunday afternoon, because it will start itself up, and stop once the job is done, of its own accord. Is this the only conceivable fate of objects? The itinerary laid down for them, leading inexorably to the complete automation of their existing functions, it has far less to do with humanity’s future technology than with its present psychological motivations. Consequently, the myth of the robot may be said to cover all paths taken by the unconscious in the realm of objects. The robot is a symbolic microcosm of both man and the world, which is to say that it simultaneously replaces both man and the world, synthesizing absolute functionality and absolute anthropomorphism. Its antecedents were electrical household appliances (of the ‘automatic maid’). Fundamentally, therefore, the robot is simply the mythological end-product of a naive phase of the imagination, a phase which implies the projection of a continual and visible functionality. For the substitution in question has to be visible: if it is to exert its fascination without creating insecurity, the robot must unequivocally reveal its nature as a mechanical prosthesis (its body is metallic, its gestures are discrete, jerky and inhuman). A robot that mimicked man to the point where its gestures had a truly human fluidity would create anxiety. What the robot must be is the symbol of a world at once entirely functionalized and entirely Alternatively, the forces embodied in the robot self-destruct: automatism is itself driven to suicide. The theme of the robot that goes off the rails and destroys itself is a common one - indeed, it is closely akin to the theme of the robot in revolt. There is a secret apocalypse of objects - or of the Object - which fuels the passionate interest of the reader. It is tempting to connect this development to a moral denunciation of the diabolical nature of science, the point being that if technology is on its own road to damnation, man will be restored to an untrammeled nature. This moral theme unquestionably plays a part in fictional narratives, but it is at once too naive and too rational. Morality per se fascinates no one, yet the anticipated disintegration of the robot produces a strange satisfaction. The recurrent


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phantasy of ritualistic fragmentation which is the culminating point of the object’s functional triumphalism is determined less by a moral constraint than by a profound wish. The spectacle of death is relished, and if we accept the idea that the robot symbolizes a subjugated sexuality, then by extension the robot’s disintegration must constitute for man the symbolic spectacle of the atomization of his own sexuality - which he himself destroys, having pressed it into the service of his image. If we carry the Freudian view to its logical conclusion, we cannot but wonder whether this is not man’s way of using technology in its most demented incarnations to celebrate the future occurrence of his own death, his way of renouncing his sexuality in order to be quit of all anxiety. The current fashion for ‘happenings’ has brought the great science-fiction event of the ‘suicide’ or murder of the object a little closer to home. The happening involves an orgiastic destruction and debasement of objects, a veritable hecatomb whereby our whole satiated culture revels in its own degradation and death. A recent fad in the United States amounts to a massmarketing of the happening in the shape of novel contraptions, composed of gears, rods, shafts and what-have-you - true jewels of useless functionality whose merit lies in the fact that they fall apart of their own accord, suddenly and irreparably, after a few hours of operation. These objects are exchanged as gifts, and the period during which they duly malfunction, disintegrate and die is the occasion for a social get-together. A similar, though less extreme, phenomenon is the embodiment in certain present-day objects of a kind of Datum. Here the car once again has pride of place. The individual commits himself to a car for better or for worse. Certainly the car serves him, but he would seem to accept and expect something more from it: the sort of destiny which in the cinema, for example, is ritually represented by death in a road accident.

THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF TECHNOLOGY We may thus trace functional mythologies, born of technics itself, all the way to a sort of fatality in which the world-mastering technology seems to crystallize in the form of an inverse and threatening purpose. At this point it behoves us to do two things. In


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

the first place, we must re-frame the problem of the fragility of objects, and of their defection; for although in the first instance objects present themselves to us as reassuring, as factors of equilibrium, albeit of a neurotic kind, they are also in the end a factor of continual disillusionment. Secondly, we must challenge our society’s implicit assumption that a rationality of ends and means governs the sphere of production and the technological project itself. The object’s dysfunctionality, its counter-purpose, is governed by two parallel sets of determinants: a socio-economic system of production and a psychological system of projection. It is the reciprocal involvement of these two systems, their collusion, that we need to define. Technological society thrives on a tenacious myth, the myth of uninterrupted technical progress accompanied by a continuing moral ‘backwardness’ of man relative thereto. These two claims are mutually supportive: moral ‘stagnation’ transfigures technical progress and turns it into the only certain value, and hence the ultimate authority of our society; by the same token, the system of production is absolved of all responsibility. A supposed moral contradiction serves to conceal the true contradiction, which is the fact, precisely, that the present production system, while working for real technological progress, at the same time opposes it (along with any restructuring of social relationships to which it might lead). The myth of a happy convergence of technology, production and consumption masks all political and economic counter-purposes. How indeed could a system of techniques and objects conceivably progress harmoniously while the system of relations between the people who produced it continued to stagnate or regress? The fact is that humans and their techniques, needs and objects are structurally interlocked come what may. The indivisibility, within any single cultural sphere, of individual and social structures and of technical and functional modalities must surely be deemed axiomatic. Our technological civilization is no exception to the rule: techniques and objects therein suffer the same servitudes as human beings - and the process of material organization, hence of objective technical progress, is subject to exactly the same blocks, deviations and regressions as the concrete process of the socializa-


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

tion of human relationships, hence of objective social progress. There is a cancer of the object: the proliferation of a-structural elements that underpins the object’s triumphalism is a kind of cancer. It is upon such a-structural elements (automatism, accessory features, inessential differences) that the entire social network of fashion and controlled consumption is founded. They are the bulwark which tends to halt genuine technical development. On their account, while appearing to manifest all the metamorphic powers of a prodigious health, objects that are already saturated wear themselves out completely through convulsive formal variation and changes whose impact is strictly visual. ‘Technically speaking,’ writes Lewis Mumford, ‘changes in form and style are signs of immaturity; they mark a period of transition. The error of capitalism as a creed lies in the attempt to make this period of • . >14 transition a permanent one. And Mumford notes that in the United States, for example, after the grand wave of inventions which between 1910 and 1940 brought in the automobile, the aeroplane, the refrigerator, the television, and so on, significant invention practically petered out. Improvement, refinement, packaging - anything to enhance the prestige of the object, but nothing by way of structural innovation. ‘The chief obstacle to the fuller development of the machine lies in the association of taste and fashion with waste and commercial profiteering.’15 On the one hand, indeed, minor improvements, added complexity and ancillary systems sustain a false consciousness of ‘progress’ and conceal the urgent necessity for fundamental changes (a ‘reformism’ of the object, one might say). On the other hand, fashion--which, with its inchoate proliferation of secondary systems, is ruled by chance — is also the realm of an infinite recurrence of forms, and hence of maximum commercial prospects. There is in fact a fundamental antagonism between the verticality of technology and the horizontality of profit - between the continual self transcendence of technical invention and the closedness of a system of recurrent objects and forms beholden to the goals of production. This is where we encounter the ambition of objects to act as replacements for human relationships. In its concrete function the object solves a practical problem, but in its inessential aspects it resolves a social or psychological conflict. Such, at


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

any rate, is the in modern ‘philosophy’ of the object as understood by Ernest Dichter, prophet of motivation research, whose thesis boils down to the claim that for any source of tension whatsoever, for any individual or collective conflict, there must be an object capable of resolving it. 16 Just as there is a saint for every day of the year, so there is an object for every problem: the important thing is to manufacture and launch that object at the right moment. What Dichter deems an ideal solution, however, Mumford more accurately sees as a solution by default, but Mumford’s conception of the object and of technics as substitute answers to human conflict — a conception which he extends within a critical perspective to our whole civilization - is essentially the same as Dichter’s. ‘The fact is’, he writes, That an elaborate mechanical organization is often a temporary and expensive substitute for an effective social organization or for a sound biological adaptation. Power machines have given a sort of licence to social inefficiency. The machine, so far from being a sign in our present civilization of human power and order, is often an indication of ineptitude and social paralysis. It is difficult to assess the total cost to society as a whole of thus referring real conflicts and needs to the technical sphere, itself in thrall to fashion and forced consumption. But that cost is certainly colossal. If one considers the automobile, for instance, it is very hard now even to imagine what an extra-ordinary tool for the reorganization of human relations it might have been, thanks to its victory over space and the structural convergence of several techniques that it represented, so quickly did it become encrusted with parasitic functions defined by the requirements of prestige, comfort, unconscious projection, and so forth - functions which first impeded and then blocked the automobile’s essential function, which was human integration. Today the car is a completely inert object. Ever more thoroughly abstracted from its social function of transportation, while at the same time serving to trap that function within archaic modalities, it continues to undergo frantic transformations, revisions and metamorphoses within the limits of possibility of a structure that cannot be changed. And a whole civilization can come to a halt in the same way as the automobile.


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Three collateral lines of development may be distinguished here. The first concerns the technical structuring of the object, implying the convergence of functions, integration, material form and economy. The second concerns a parallel structuring of the world and of nature: space is mastered, energy is controlled, materials are mobilized - and a more meaningful and interrelated world emerges. Thirdly, human praxis, both individual and collective, is so structured as to foster an ever greater ‘relativity’ and mobility, along with an open-ended integration and an ‘economy’ of society analogous to that of the most highly evolved technical objects. Despite the discrepancies arising from the distinct dynamics of each of these levels, it may be observed that, broadly speaking, whenever development slows or stops, it does so on all three at once. Once a technical object’s development is arrested at a given outcome (which at the second level, in the case of the car, means a partial victory over space), it will henceforward do no more than continue to connote that frozen structure, to which all manner of subjective motivations will now return cathectically (regression at the third level). It is at this point that the technical object, having lost all dynamism, may enter into a relationship of fixed compl-ementarity: car and house, for example, will come to constitute a closed system invested with conventional values, and the car, ceasing to serve relationship or exchange, will truly be nothing but an object of consumption: ‘Not alone have the older forms of technics served to constrain the development of the neo-technic economy: but the new inventions and devices have been frequently used to maintain, renew, and stabilize the structure of the old order.’ The automobile no longer removes obstacles between men; on the contrary, men now invest the automobile with that which separates them. Space mastered becomes an even greater obstacle than the space over which mastery was sought in the first place.

TECHNICS AND THE UNCONSCIOUS SYSTEM All the same, we have eventually to ask ourselves whether there is not some-thing more at the root of this relative stagnation of forms and techniques, this systematic deficit (whose remarkable efficiency in terms of social integration will nevertheless be


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

confirmed below when we discuss ‘Models and Series’), than the self-interested dictatorship of a system of production, than an absolutely — and absolutely alienating - social agency. Whether, as Lewis Mumford puts it is simply a ‘social accident’ that objects remain in a state of underdevelopment. If humanity were ‘innocent’ in this respect, if the production system alone were responsible for technology’s immaturity, there would indeed be an accident here - a contradiction just as inexplicable as its diametrical opposite, the bourgeois fiction of ‘advanced’ technology held back by moral ‘retardation’. The truth is that there is no accident, and even if we must assign the lion’s share of responsibility to a production system, structurally linked to the social order, which exploits the entire society by means of a system of objects, we still cannot help concluding, in view of the system’s permanence and solidity, that a collusion exists somewhere between the collective order of production and an individual order of needs, albeit an unconscious one. What I mean by ‘collusion’ is a close relationship of negative complicity, or a set of reciprocal determinations, between the dysfunctionality of the socio-economic system and the far-reaching effects of the unconscious; the question was touched on above in connection with robots. If connotation and personalization, fashion and automatism, all tend to focus upon those a-structural features whose irrational motivations the logic of production seeks to control and systematize, this is perhaps also because man has neither a clear will to transcend nor any great prospect of transcending the aforementioned archaic structures of projection; or at least that he has a deep-seated resistance to sacrificing subjective, projective virtualities and their eternal recurrence on the altar of concrete structural development (both technical and social); or again, to put it in the simplest terms, that man has a profound resistance to imposing rationality upon the purely arbitrary goals of his needs. This may well constitute a fatal turn for the modus existendi of the object, as indeed of society as a whole. Once a certain point in technical development has been reached, and once primary needs have been satisfied, we may well demand a phantasied, allegorical and subconscious edibility of the object as much as, or even more than, an actual functionality. Why is it, after all, that the design of the automobile is not different:


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

why is the driver’s seat not positioned forward and the vehicle streamlined in such a way as to let the operator efficiently occupy the space he has to travel through, instead of placing him in a substitute house - even, as it were, within a substitute subject endowed with projectile force? Surely the answer must be that the current form (even more exaggerated in racing cars, whose excessively long bonnet has every appearance of providing an absolute model here) facilitates an essential projection which is ultimately far more important than any progress in the art and science of travel. Apparently man needs to overburden the world with this ‘unconscious’ discourse of his, even at the cost of halting that world’s development. The implications of this are very farreaching. If indeed the a-structural elements around which our most tenacious desires seem to crystallize are not just parallel functions, complications or overloads, but properly speaking dysfunctions, failures or aberrations relative to an objective structural order, if indeed a whole civilization appears ready to turn away on their account from a genuine revolution in its structures, and if indeed all this is not accidental, then we are justified in asking whether man, under cover of the myth of functional extravagance (or ‘personalized affluence’), which in fact conceals an obsession with his own image, does not after all incline much more towards an increasingly dysfunctional world than towards an increasingly functional one. He does appear, at any rate, to go along with the play of dysfunctions which is progressively turning our environment into a world of objects arrested in their growth by their own outgrowths, as it were, objects disappointed and disappointing to the very extent that they become personalized. The substitutional aspect of the object, which a moment ago we noted was a decisive one, is even more in evidence here: it is even truer on the plane of unconscious conflicts than on that of social or conscious psychological ones, as evoked by Ernest Dichter and Lewis Mumford, that the use of technics — and, more simply, the consumption of objects — has secondary roles to play, imaginary solutions to offer. Technics as an effective mediation between man and the world is indeed the harder path. The easier path is the interpolation of a system of objects as an imaginary resolution of contradictions of every kind. This


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

amounts to a short circuit between the technical order and the order of individual needs, a short circuit which exhausts the energies of both systems. Small wonder that the resulting system of objects should bear the stigma of defection: its structural deficiency reflects the contradiction to which the system offers a merely formal solution. As the individual or collective cover for one conflict or another, the system of objects is inevitably marked by its denial of those conflicts. But what are the conflicts that objects are called upon to cover up? Humanity has its whole future wagered on the simultaneous harnessing of natural external forces and of the internal pressure of the libido, both of which it experiences as threatening and fateful. The unconscious economy of the system of objects is a mechanism of projection and domestication (or control) of the libido which brings an efficient principle to bear. The domination of nature and the production of goods are in effect a parallel benefit thereof. Unfortunately, however, this admirable economy carries a dual risk for the human order: first there is the danger that sexuality might be in some sense conjured away and foreclosed in the technical realm, secondly the danger that this technical realm might in turn be disturbed in its development by the conflicted energy by which it has been invested. All the preconditions are thus assembled for the emergence of an insoluble contradiction, a permanent defection: the fact is that the system of objects as it operates today embodies an ever-present potential for comment to this sort of regression — the lure of an end to sexuality, its definitive absorption in the recurrence and continual forward flight of the technical order. In practice the technical order always retains a certain dynamism of its own that blocks the sort of infinite recurrence characteristic of a perfect regressive system of this kind (which is equivalent, strictly speaking, to death). The necessary conditions for such an eventuality are nevertheless present in our system of objects, and the system is haunted by the temptation of a reverse evolution which coexists in it with the potential for progress. This temptation to regress towards what can only be called death as a way of escaping from sexual anxiety some-


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

times assumes forms — still within the context of the technical order - that are ever more spectacular and brutal. It may then be transformed into the temptation, truly tragic in its implications, to see this order itself turned against its instigator - that is, against humanity; to see an ineluctable fate re-emerge from within the very technical order that had been designed to exorcize it — a process akin to the one described by Freud, whereby repressed energy returns via the repressing agency itself and derails all mechanisms of defence. In contrast to the reassurance vouchsafed by a gradual regression, the tragic variety precipitates the dizzying sensations associated with such a brusque resolution of the conflict between the sexual drives and the ego. These sensations are a response to the eruption of hitherto contained energies within technical objects themselves — that is to say, within the very symbols of mastery over the world. Two contradictory goals are pursued simultaneously: the inevitability of fate is challenged, yet at the same time sought. This contradiction is reflected in the economic order of production, which, though it produces ceaselessly, can produce only fragile objects — objects that are partly dysfunctional and destined for an early death; the system thus works to destroy such objects as well as to produce them. Let me stress once again that it is not the fragility of objects that is tragic, nor their death. Rather, it is the temptation represented by that fragility and that death. This temptation is satisfied in a way when an object fails us, even though this failing may at the same time inconvenience us or throw us into despair. This is the same kind of malign and vertiginous satisfaction that we encountered earlier, as projected into phantasies of revolt and destruction on the part of robots. The object takes its revenge. It becomes ‘personalized’ - in this case for the worse - because it revolts. This hostile volte-face may shock us and take us by surprise, but there is no denying that a submissive attitude soon develops towards this revolt, which we treat as inevitable, and as evidence of a fragility that distinctly appeals to us. A technical hitch infuriates us, but an avalanche of technical hitches can fill us with glee; if a jug develops a crack we are pained, but if it smashes to smithereens there is satisfaction in it. Our reaction to an object’s failure is in fact always ambiguous. This failure


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard

threatens our wellbeing, yet it gives material expression to the objection that we continually raise with respect to ourselves -an objection which also demands satisfaction. As Ernest Dichter points out, you expect a cigarette lighter to work, but ‘you do not assume, or even desire, that your lighter would admirably perform under all conditions’. One has merely to imagine an infallible object, and the disillusion it would inevitably entail in connection - precisely - with the aforementioned objection one has to oneself, in order to realize that infallibility invariably generates anxiety. The fact is that a world without fallibility would imply the definitive resorption of an inevitable fate - and hence of sexuality. This is why we greet the slightest hint of a resurgence of fatefulness with deep satisfaction: the slightest breach allows sexuality to revive, even if for only a moment, even if it takes the form of a hostile force (as it always does in this context), and even if its emergence in such circumstances means failure, death and destruction. The underlying contradiction is thus resolved in contradictory fashion, but could things really go otherwise? Our ‘technological’ civilization, as foreshadowed by the American model, is a world at once systematized and fragile. The system of objects is the embodiment of this systematization of fragility, of ephemerality, of the ever more rapid recurrence of the repetition compulsion; the embodiment of satisfaction and disillusion; the embodiment of the problematical exorcism of the real conflicts that threaten individual and social relationships. With the advent of our consumer society, we are seemingly faced for the first time in history by an irreversible organized attempt to swamp society with objects and integrate it into an indispensable system designed to replace all open interaction between natural forces, needs and techniques. The principal basis of this system would appear to be the official, obligatory and supervised demise of the objects that it comprises: a gigantic collective ‘happening’ whereby the death of the group itself is celebrated through the euphoric destruction or ritualistic devouring of objects and gestures. Here again one could argue that nothing more is involved than an infantile disorder of the technological society, and attribute such growing pains entirely to the dysfunctionality of our present social structures — i.e. to the capitalist order of production. The long-term prospect of a


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

transcendence of the whole system would thus remain open. On the other hand, if something more is involved than the anarchic ends of a production system determined by social exploitation, if deeper conflicts in fact playa part — highly individual conflicts, but extended onto the collective plane — then any prospect of ultimate transcendence must be abandoned forever. Are we contemplating the developmental problems of a society ultimately destined to become the best of all possible worlds, or, alternatively, an organized regression in the face of insoluble problems? Is all this the work of anarchic production relations or of the death instinct? What, in short, has made a civilization go wrong in this way? The question is still open.


Gadgets & Robots // Jean Beaudrillard


Shelf Life: The Breakdown


What is Your Favorite Object?

What is your favorite object? Why is it your favorite object? Is there a story behind it? Does the object have meaning to you?


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

My iPhone Necklace Canon 40D A bracelet I got in Greece. It has brown and beige beads. I have trouble picking one object, but this one is veryimportant to me. It’s an old metal cigarette case with a map of Japan and Korea painted on, but some of the paint has chipped off. My murokuro .5mm mechanical pencil. It’s shape is relatively uniform up until its top and the top tail. Black below and white above with murokuro pigs on it. My pearl white 2000 Honda Prelude SH. My favorite object is my camera. It’s a canon G11. I like thismodel because the manual settings and picture quality are reputable to an SLR, but the size is small enough to bring with me everywhere. Pinkie, my pink stuffed bunny... 96

What is Your Favorite Object?

“My grandfather gave it to me when I was little, from his time he served in the Korean War. It’s a little beat up, and I assume he gave it to me (as opposed to my sister or one of my cousins) because I am Korean, and was born there. I always felt a nice connection that he had been to the country I was born in, when no one else in my family had, even though it was at a time before I was born. My grandfather passed away December 2009, so while this object has always been precious to me, it’s even more so now.”

“It’s convenient and useful. I can’t live without it.”


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Describe this object. 98

What is Your Favorite Object?

Pick 3 emotions you feel when you interact with this object.


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Computer/Laptop It’s a photograph of me and my older sisterwhen we were kids. In the picture, she is hugging me and we are laughing. My iPod. Stuffed animal dog named Surprise — floppy-eared, brown with white paws & face — once was soft but has been worn over time. My Nikon 50mm f/1.4 Manual Focus lens from the late 60’s. My hands. My smallest pillow. My Dr. Grip Shakerpencil Guitar Skis My key carbiner 100

What is Your Favorite Object?

“I got this great deal on craigslist.. I’ve been really getting into photography again and spent the whole summer practicing with my new Nikon D90. I had been searching for some while for a good lens and lucked out on this one. It’s a beautiful piece of work, it takes gorgeous photos and I love it dearly. It’s definitely something I will try to keep for as long as I can.” “I make my art on the computer.”


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

Flat screen tv. My 2002 Lafuma Whoops 25L backpack that is falling apart and needs to be replaced. Macbook Pro My ComforPedic mattress. 2000 Premium Pearl White Honda Prelude Type SH Panda beanie baby. A stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh bear My iPhone A small bone carving that is an old man on one side and a sea turtle on another, it has holes through the center to be worn on a necklace. My journal(s) — I write anything and eve- rything in it. It has my thoughts, drawings, notes from lectures and sermons, quotes, prayer requests and praise reports. These journals are all shapes and sizes. They’re all handwritten. 102

What is Your Favorite Object?

“It’s important to me because it has my thoughts and also those things that I want to remember. I didn’t have a journal when I was younger. I started writing on starting in my senior year in high school. Writing things out helps me to forget about my worries and it also helps me to find solutions to current problems by allowing me to vent and work out my emotions. I would be devastated if they were in a fire and burned up!” “It changes the way I interact with my life. I think it’s beautifully designed, right down to every minute detail.”


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

MacBook Pro My favorite object, at the moment, would be my camera. It’s a Canon EOS 5D Mk.II. A silver fork. My favorite object is my wallet with a picture inside it, since it was a gift that flew from Hawaii, from my girlfriend. My music collection. My second degree black belt Canon EOS 1D-Mark III My favorite object is my Apple MacBook Pro 15� with a 2.66 GHz Intel Core i7 processor and 4GB 1067 MHz DDR3 randomaccess memory. My wedding ring. My rifle. Predominately my monster AR. My iPhone. 104

What is Your Favorite Object?

“I had a tough time deciding what the object of most importance to me would be. Originally, I would say my computer but that seems general and unspecific. My music collection on the other hand has been constructed since I was 15 and I feel a need to keep it pretty substantial even with digital music and what not being the main way I really listen to music. Its like an archive of changing tastes, at once wholly cohesive and completely diverse, death metal records next to psuedo christian fleetwood mac revival albums. It documents memories and specific times in my life, like my complete collection of original fleetwood mac LPs that I got from my dad, that I am always revisiting. I also have a dedicated section of cds that i received as payment at the record label, Hydra Head, that I worked at for 2 years. Each record has some story behind it, whether it be something that I bought because of a girl, an article I read, a popular recommendation or an obsessive tendency to own every physical object ever released by bands like Radiohead, Opeth, Emperor, Kayo Dot, Deathspell Omega, Eisley, etc. Hell, I have 4 copies of Radiohead’s album ‘Amnesiac.’” “I can do all my homework, listen to music, surf the web, take pictures, video chat, and download things on it.”


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

White Riedell ice skates My iPod. My iPhone. Cellphone. Verizon iPhone My MacBook Air. A non-photo blue pencil. Laptop computer. MacBook Pro My Blackberry East German 35MM film camera.


What is Your Favorite Object?

“As a designer, I spend the majority of my time on a computer and I’m a tech nerd so the ability of having a computer in your palm is just the most amazing thing. Your interests, your music, your relationships, your friends, your books, your news/emails/ blogs/ RSS/twitter/facebook/etc, your bank account, your movies, and your shows, it’s all there: either stored in the physical phone itself or on the internet cloud. The phone itself as an object isn’t as meaningful as the phone itself as an outlet. To me the phone, specifically this phone as it’s the most refined, means power, it means being connected and at all times to the most powerful, nationchanging thing on the world, the internet.” “They give me time to think about things when I am using them. It is a challenge and frustrating but also relaxing. I would ice skate for fun.”


Shelf Life: The Breakdown

How did this object come into your possession?

64.2% 26.4% bought



What is Your Favorite Object?

13.2% 3.8% inherited



Shelf Life: The Breakdown



Everything Explained: The Breakdown

We are, quite literally, tool-beings; creatures shaped and moulded by the objects on which we depend — objects fashioned by our own hands.


Things With Souls // Isaiah Black


We in the West tend to reject the idea that everyday objects have an inner soul or spirit. The more imaginative individual may concede that animals have some form of spiritual essence, but the idea that a carrot has a soul is patently absurd. A carrot is just an amusingly shaped vegetable which grows in the ground, is sometimes harvested, sold, cooked and then eaten. In the same sense, a laptop computer is just an ingenious device which allows the more pretentious author to pen his magnum opus whilst conspicuously seated in a coffee shop. Things are just things. Inanimate objects are no more than the sum of their material properties. Despite our professed materialism however, the way in which we use and conceptualise everyday objects suggests that, at some level at least, we really do believe that the products of human invention harbour some mysterious internal dynamism. In a world conceived through human eyes and apprehended by a network of human ideas, objects tend to outgrow their material constraints. We associate the mechanical whirring and rhythmic vibrations of electronic devices with personhood, reasoning that if an object moves-seemingly of its own volition-it must be alive. Like the ancients who invested heavenly bodies with divine personhood in an effort to 113

Everything Explained: The Breakdown

make them comprehensible, we in the modern era humanise objects whose technological composition is beyond our understanding. Yet this human-object relation runs both ways. As Alvin Toffler suggested some forty odd years ago: Important new machines...suggest novel solutions to social, philosophical, even personal problems. They alter man’s total intellectual environment — the way he thinks and looks at the world. We all learn from our environment, scanning it constantly — though perhaps unconsciously — for models to emulate. These models are not only other people. They are, increasingly, machines. By there presence, we are subtly conditioned to think along certain lines.

Machines are the unruly children of the modern world. Rebellious, ruthlessly efficient and forever insisting upon the minds of their creators; man-made objects which serve to prop up and support human endeavour like so much scaffolding, becoming integral and determinate organs. Their subversive nature derives from the paradoxical function of a “tool” — an object which undermines even as it helps. It is as tools-to-be-used that man-made objects so deeply infest the ideational world of the human subject. Consider, for example the humble pencil; a thin piece of wood with a fine graphite rod at its centre used the world over by eager school children, artists and tradesmen. For us the pencil is far more than an amalgam of wood and graphite. It is a tool used to scribble notes in a scrap book, to sketch a self-portrait, to jot down recipe ingredients on a note pad. The pencil is a conduit between mind and material world which recedes into cognitive obsolescence at the very moment it is used. When presented with this object we see only its use-value — the end product of mind-pencil-paper. What we miss in this blind utilitarian apprehension of the tool is the history of its development; the processes of construction 114

Things With Souls // Isaiah Black

and design which speaks of our species’ proclivity for invention. We are the creatures who see the natural world not as it is, but as it should be — raw material to be bent and cut, smoothed and sharpened, burnt and bound. In its natural state the world is wasted; limited to a single, narrow purpose. Through the eyes of human invention the earth gives rise to innumerable objects; the servants on whose backs we claim global dominion. Yet this imperative to invent is a matter of necessity rather than caprice. As Ernst Bloch once put it, “Our bare skin absolutely forces us to invent”. We have no external shell for protection-no protruding horn or venomous stinger. Instead we must fashion artificial appendages of wood and stone and metal in order to survive-a shortcoming which has proven immensely advantageous. With the advent of the humble knife, our ancestors were able to cut through the raw flesh of their prey, slicing meat into more manageable sizes and saving their teeth from a great deal of grunt work. The flint gave rise to fire and cooked food, which drastically increased the efficiency of our calorie consumption. We are, quite literally, tool-beings; creatures shaped and moulded by the objects on which we depend-objects fashioned by our own hands. This is no less the case in a modern world with no appreciation for biography, where tools are hidden in our walls, above our heads and beneath our feet. Electricity, plumbing and wireless technology lay hidden beneath the surface fabric of our ready-made Gardens of Edenhomes and work places replete with technological wizardry which seems to spring up ex nihilo. We have lost the tactile connection object-tools which our ancestors forged in ages past and, as a consequence, we are fundamentally estranged from, yet heavily influenced by, the objects of our own invention. 115

Everything Explained: The Breakdown

Tools which were initially constructed to aid in the survival of our species have been displaced by commodities purchased from department stores in an effort to enhance our status, to augment our experience of pleasure, or increase efficiency. While they were once “tools” that derived value from function, man-made objects have become commodities whose value is determined by commercial exchange. The “usefulness” of an object it not nearly as important as its brand name and the cultural kudos it bestows upon its owner. Rid of its inherent necessity, the object-tool must sell itself to the consumer, offering far more than mere functionality. The physical properties of a commodity have become secondary to the propaganda espoused by advertising slogans and the promises tied up in an object’s brand identity. As the twentieth century got into full swing, advertisers began to realise that the ideational properties of commodities were far more valuable, than their more tangible, utilitarian aspects: What was changing was the idea of what-in both advertising and branding-was being sold. The old paradigm had it that all marketing was selling a product. In the new model, however, the product always takes a back seat to the real product, the brand, and the selling of the brand acquired an extra component that can only be described as spiritual. Advertising is about hawking product. Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence.

Brand is the perfect form of commodity-an essentially insubstantial, self-referential and infinitely adaptable medium which can easily be added to any form of packaging or communication. By pouring vast sums of money into brand valorisation the modern company need no longer focus its energies on quality-despite the fact that it was precisely this quality which first gained the company its brand reputation. 116

Things With Souls // Isaiah Black

The ever-widening discrepancy between brand name and quality can be seen in that most devious of commoditiesthe cereal box-whose exterior surface area suggests a far greater volume of cereal than that which is contained within. On one level, the larger package brings about a kind of retroactive, quantitative theft-wherein the consumer is duped into thinking that the box they are purchasing will be full to the brim with cereal. On a deeper level however, the extra space on the box allows for clearer, more salient advertising. The process of shopping thus becomes an immensely tiring (if enjoyable) enterprise, where the consumer must struggle through a seeming endless array of brands names and advertising slogans, all competing for attention. It is the subsequent distance between consumer and material-object which engenders our belief that things have a life of their own. *** Given the mysterious, almost spiritual nature of the commodity, it takes a certain amount of sense that Marx’s Das Kapital reads more like a theological text than a work of economic theory. In dealing with objects which are bought and sold in a capitalist market, Marx was effectively entering into a discussion of transcendent realities, and it was precisely at this point-at the liminal barrier between the maternal and immaternal that Marx located the fundamental contradiction in the human/commodity relation. A commodity appears at first Sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it 117

Everything Explained: The Breakdown

first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will. Commodities are magical to us in precisely the same sense as the illusions of a street magician. We lack the necessary understanding of how a magician’s trick is performed and, thus alienated from the process of production, are forced to interpret what we see in pseudo-mystical terms. At the moment it enters the market as a ready-made object the commodity already possesses certain spiritual attributes which derive from the investment of human labour which stands behind their production. The notion of commodities as a kind of fetish is particularly instructive, as a fetish denotes some tangible object which “stands-in” for the immaterial — a means of cementing the intangible. While the religious fetish historically related to some deity or spiritual entity, commodities function as a material representation of value; whether use-value, monetary-value or cultural-value. The original investment of human labour, coupled with a second intellectual/ideological investment of brand image, raises the commodity-object to lofty spiritual heights. Yet its spirituality is not an inherent quality of the commodity-object, but rather an ideational concept of value which resides in the minds of individuals and society at large. Taken out of their original life-context and 118

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divorced from the society which produced them, commodities become fundamentally misread objects whose value must be re-acquired through some new and unintended use or aesthetic property. This is precisely the role played by the empty CocaCola bottle which falls from the sky in that ingenious little film from the early eighties. The Gods Must Be Crazy. In its original environment, the bottle functions as a drink receptacle, but to the African bushman and his family it is a perplexing divine gift which seems to offer up innumerable uses. The Coca-Cola bottle is problematic precisely because of its indeterminacy within this new, unintended context. Divorced from its original function the bottle becomes a strange, magical object which the bushman and his family are simply unable to adequately incorporate into their symbolic universe. In many ways though the Coca-Cola bottle is the perfect example of the commodity object; thrown into a world of constant exchange and redundancy. The value of the object is entirely fluid in that it is subject to the whims of the individual and collective human mind. Its capacity to apparently rise and fall in monetary/cultural worth, imbues the commodity with vitality and it is precisely this movement which captures our attention like the playful dance of firelight. Just as the Hebrew god Yaweh breathed life into Adam’s inanimate body — transforming dirt-man into an autonomous, god-like being — so our own creations become gods unto themselves. Yet, as Marx rightly saw, we are unwilling at a conscious level to recognise their autonomy. In an oft-quoted (oft-Googled) media briefing regarding the search for “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld famously offered this rather cryptic explanation: As we know, 119

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There are known knowns, There are things we know we know. We also know There are known unknowns. That is to say We know there are some things We do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, The ones we don’t know we don’t know.

It took Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Ziiek—for whom the orthodox is always in need of a fundamental reversal-to point out that Rumsfeld had in fact neglected a vital component in his tri-part formula; namely the implied forth statement which completes the quartet: There are unknown knowns There are things we think we know, which we don’t know.

Having no desire to invite further criticism of the Bush Administration, Rumsfeld understandably left this closing statement unsaid. It was patently obvious to most people that the US government under George W. Bush-at least at an official level-suffered from precisely this kind of unknown knowns assumption. In the case of Iraq, the Bush Administration assumed the presence of WMDs when in fact no such weapons existed. What they thought they knew, they did not actually know at all. Aside from its political ramifications however, Rumsfeld’s missing fourth category highlights a poignant deficiency in our own engagement with commodities. We in the modern West suffer from a severe overestimation of knowledge. Like those vacuous citizens in totalitarian societies for whom state propaganda has become absolute truth purely by 120

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virtue of its incessant, overwhelming presence, our “knowledge” of commodities relates to product advertisements and functionality, rather any deeper understanding of the processes of commodity production and the psychology at work in the human-object relationship. We spout oft quoted catchphrases such as “supply and demand’: “economic growth”, “profit” and so on, insisting that there is no fundamental mystery to the fluctuation of commodity value. Yet such trite explanations mask our true estrangement from the objects we manufacture and sell. In the words of Haruki Murakami’s protagonist in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, most of us “take a convenience-sake view of prevailing world conditions;’ lacking the energy or inclination to question the status quo. Man-made objects thus fall into the category of unknown knowns; objects which we fundamentally misread-thinking we understand, when in fact we do not. The term “metaphysics” (literally, “beyond or above material”), which appears in the title of this chapter, is intentionally ambiguous, referring as it does to both theological speculation and the idea that objects in the modern world are imbued with metaphysical qualities. The notion of a metaphysical aspect to man-made objects is also intended to emphasise their mysterious, indeterminate and influential nature. The commodities which surround us exercise a profound and ever-increasing influence over the human subject and culture at large. Yet, with each new technological advancement, each new wave of capitalist consumption, we are further and further estranged from the objects we create and utilise. Fooled by our proximity and functional familiarity with commodities, we fail to see the ways in which these objects inform and limit human possibility. There are, I would argue, important questions which 121

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need to be asked regarding the function of everyday objects within the psychological and social realms of modern humanity. In an age characterised by its frenetic vacuity, in societies preoccupied with growth and besotted by all things novel, it is vital that we pause for a moment to consider exactly where we are, or perhaps more importantly, who we are. This book represents an attempt to see beyond the commonplace, everyday stuff of modern life, to question what it is to be human within the context of a Western democratic capitalist context. However, rather than approaching the question directlyby establishing a philosophical, scientific or ethical foundation for the human being, or via reference to various analogies or subjective, biographical experiences which may illustrate the essence of being-I have chosen to approach the matter from a slightly different perspective. In a sense, the method behind this book is not dissimilar to that of an archaeologist, reconstructing the lives of past civilisations by a close examination of the tools and objects they have left behind. By examining the form and function of various everyday objects within contemporary society, we can gain a clearer understanding of the cultural and psychological structures at work in our everyday environment. Thus, in the ensuing chapters we brave few will don the unfashionable khaki safari suit and pith helmet of the fearless archaeologist as we venture bravely into the banal tundra of everyday life-miniature trowels and brushes firmly in hand.


Things With Souls // Isaiah Black


Everything Explained: The Breakdown

Restriction of any kind on the possibility of buying on credit is felt to be a retaliatory measure on the part of the state; to do away with such arrangements—which is in any case unthinkable—would be experienced by society at large as the abolition of a freedom.


Credit to Freedom // Jean Beaudrillard

CREDIT TO FREEDOM Jean Beaudrillard

RIGHTS AND DUTIES OF THE CONSUMER-CITIZEN Today, then, objects appear under the sign of differentiation and choice - but they also appear (or at least, all key objects do) under the sign of credit. When you buy something you certainly have to pay for it, but the choice is yours ‘free’, and by the same token credit terms are proposed as a free gift, as a kind of bonus from the world of production. The unstated assumption is that credit is the consumer’s right, and ultimately an economic right of the citizen. Restriction of any kind on the possibility of buying on credit is felt to be a retaliatory measure on the part of the State; to do away with such arrangements - which is in any case unthinkable - would be experienced by society at large as the abolition of a freedom. For advertising, credit is a decisive argument in the ‘strategy of desire’, and its role is comparable in every way to any other quality of the object on offer; it is on a par in customer motivation with choice, ‘personalization’ and the rhetoric of promotion, of which last it is the tactical complement. The way in which the model is antic-ipated in the series is paralleled in the case of credit by the enjoyment of objects ahead of time; the psychological context is the same. 125

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In principle the credit system does not affect the serial object more or less than it affects the model, and there is nothing to stop anyone buying a Jaguar on hire purchase. In actuality, however, custom decrees that the de luxe model be paid for cash down; things bought on credit tend simply not to be models. There is a logic of status according to which the prestige of a cash purchase is one of the privileges of the model, while the constraint of periodic payments contributes to the psychological shortfall associated with the serial object. A certain puritanism has long sensed some moral danger in credit, and placed on-the-spot payment among the bourgeois virtues. It must be admitted, however, that psychological resistance of this kind is gradually diminishing. Where it persists, it is merely a relic of a traditional notion of progeny, and largely confined to the class of small owners still faithful to the notions of inheritance, thrift and the family future. These survivals are sure to die out in time. Once progeny had priority over use; now the reverse is true, and the extension of credit, among other phenomena defined by David Riesman, marks the gradual transition from an ‘acquisitive’ civilization to a practical one. Credit customers are gradually learning how to make use of objects in complete freedom as though they were already ‘theirs’. The difference, of course, is that while such objects are being paid for they are simul-taneously wearing out: the final payment-due date is not unrelated to the ‘replacement-due’ date - indeed, as we know, some American firms strive to make the two intervening periods coincide exactly. There is always the risk, therefore, as in the event of defectiveness or loss, that an object will be, so to speak, used up before it is paid up. Even when credit seems to have been perfectly integrated into everyday life, this danger is the basis of an insecurity that was never experienced in connection with the ‘patrimonial’ object. Such an object was mine: lowed 126

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nothing. An object bought on credit will be mine when I have paid for it: it is conjugated, as it were, in the future perfect. The anxiety that attaches to periodic payments is very specific. It eventually sets in train a parallel process which weighs down on us day after day even though we never become conscious of the objective relationship involved. It haunts the human project, not immediate practice. An object that is mortgaged escapes us in time, and has in fact escaped us from the outset. It flees us, and its flight echoes that of the serial object ever vainly striving towards the model. This dual movement of things away from our grasp is what creates the latent fragility and ever-imminent disappointments of the world of objects that surrounds us. In the end the credit system merely exemplifies what is a very general way of relating to objects in the modern context. Indeed, it is quite possible to live on credit without sitting amid a year’s worth of credit invoices for car, fridge and television, because the model/series mechanism, with its obligatory orientation towards the model, is a handicap in its own right. This mechanism governs the realm of social advancement, which consequently becomes a realm of handicapped aspiration. We are forever behindhand relative to our objects. They are here before us, yet they are already a year away, located either in that final payment or else in the next model by which they are bound to be replaced. So credit simply transfers a basic psychological situation onto the economic plane; the obligation to follow a sequence is the same at both levels, whether it is economic, as with successive hirepurchase payments, or psycho-sociological, as in the systematic and ever-accelerating succession of series and models. In any event, we experience our objects in a predefined, mortgaged temporal mode. If there are now barely any restrictions on the use of credit, perhaps the reason is that all our objects 127

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today are apprehended as if they were obtained on credit, as debts incurred to society as a whole - debts that are always susceptible of adjustment, always fluctuating, always prey to chronic inflation and devaluation. Much in the same way as our earlier discussion of ‘personalization’ led us to conclude that this was far more than an advertising gimmick, that it was in fact a key ideological notion, so likewise credit must be viewed as far more than a financial arrangement, for it is nothing less than a fundamental dimension of our society and in effect a new ethical system.

THE PRECEDENCE OF CONSUMPTION: A NEW ETHIC A single generation has witnessed the eclipse of the notions of patrimony and of fixed capital. Until our parents’ generation, objects once acquired were owned in the full sense, for they were the material expression of work done. It is still not very long since buying a dining-table and chairs, or a car, represented the end-point of a sustained exercise of thrift. People worked dreaming of what they might later acquire; life was lived in accordance with the puritan notion of effort and its reward — and objects finally won represented repayment for the past and security for the future. They were, in short, a capital. Today objects are with us before they are earned, they steal a march on the sum total of effort, of labour, that they embody, so that in a sense their consumption precedes their production. True, these objects, which I merely make use of, no longer impose any patrimonial responsibility on me; they are bequeathed to me by nobody and I, in turn, shall bequeath them to nobody. They do, however, exert another kind of constraint, for they hang over me as debts as yet unsettled. If they no longer locate me in a relationship to a family or customary group, I am nevertheless brought into relation 128

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through them with society at large and its agencies (the economic and financial order, the fluctuations of fashion, and so forth). And I must pay for them over and over again, month by month, or replace them every year. This means that everything has changed: the significance these objects have for me, the projects they embody, their objective future, and mine. It is worth pondering the fact that for centuries generations of people succeeded one another in an unchanging decor of objects which were longer-lived than they, whereas now many generations of objects will follow upon one another at an ever accelerating pace during a single human lifetime. Where once man imposed his rhythm upon objects, now objects impose their disjointed rhythm - their unpredictable and sudden manner of being present, of breaking down or replacing one another without ever aging - upon human beings. Thus the status of a whole civilization changes along with the way in which its everyday objects make themselves present and the way in which they are enjoyed. In a patriarchal domestic economy founded on inheritance and stable rents, consumption could never conceivably precede production. In accordance with good Cartesian and moral logic, work preceded its fruit as cause precedes effect. That ascetic mode of accumulation, rooted in forethought, in sacrifice, and in a resorption of needs that created great tension within the individual, was the foundation of a whole civilization of thrift which enjoyed its own heroic period before expiring in the anachronistic figure of the redetermined, of the ruined reinter, who in this century has perforce learnt the historical lesson of the vanity of traditional morality and traditional economic calculation. By dint of living within their means, whole generations have ended up living far below their means. Work, merit, accumulation - all the virtues of an era whose pinnacle was the concept of property are still discernible in the objects that 129

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stand as witness to that time, objects whose lost generations continue to haunt the petty-bourgeois interior.

THE OBLIGATION TO BUY Today a new morality has been born. Precedence of consumption over accumulation, forward flight, forced investment, speeded-up consumption, chronic inflation (implying the absurdity of saving) — these are the motors of our whole present system of buying first and paying off later in labour. Credit has thus brought us back to a situation that is in fact feudal in character, reminiscent as it is of the arrangement under which a portion of labour would be allocated in advance, as serf labour, to the feudal lord. There is a difference, however, for our system, unlike feudalism, reposes on complicity: modern consumers spontaneously embrace and accept the unending constraint that is imposed on them. They buy so that society can continue to produce, this so that they can continue to work, and this in turn so that they can pay for what they have bought. Witness the following American advertising slogans, noted by Vance Packard, which make the point very well: ‘Buy days mean pay days - and pay days mean better days!’; ‘Buy now - the job you save may be your own!’; ‘Buy your way to prosperity.’” The illusionism is truly remarkable: society appears to extend credit to you in exchange for a formal freedom, but in reality it is you who are giving credit to society, alienating your future in the process. Of course the system of production still depends fundamentally on the exploitation of labourpower, but today it is strongly reinforced by the circular consensus or collusion whereby subjection itself is experienced as freedom, and is thus transformed into an independent and durable system. In every individual the consumer colludes with the production system while having no relationship to 130

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the producer - the victim of the system - that he also is. Paradoxically, this split between producer and consumer is the mainstay of social integration,because everything is done so that it can never take the living and critical form of a contradiction.

THE MIRACLE OF BUYING The advantage of credit (as of advertising) is indeed the dual dimension it bestows upon buying and its objective determinants. Buying on credit amounts to the total appropriation of an object for a fraction of its real value. A minimal investment for a profit out of all proportion to it. Payments are relegated to a dimly perceived future, and the object is acquired in exchange for a symbolic gesture. This transaction mirrors the behaviour of the mythomaniac, who for the price of a madeup story receives a quite disproportionate measure of attention from his audience. His real investment is minimal, while the benefits are extraordinary, for he acquires all the virtues of reality on the strength, practically speaking, of a mere sign. He too lives on credit - in the shape of the credulousness of other people. Now this inversion of the normal way of transforming reality - which proceeds from work to the product of work, and founds the traditional temporality of the logic of knowledge as of everyday praxis - this premature reaping of benefits is nothing less than magical Likewise, what the buyer consumes and appropriates thanks to credit, along with the object prematurely acquired, is the myth of magical functionality promoted by the only society capable of offering him such possibilities of immediate self-realization. Naturally, he will very soon come face to face with socio-economic reality, just as the mythomaniac must sooner or later confront the spuriousness of his claims. Once unmasked, the mythomaniac either collapses or takes refuge in another tall tale. The 131

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buyer on the never-never is similarly liable to run up against unmeetable payment-due dates, and there is a good chance that he will seek psychological reassurance in this situation by buying some other item on credit. Forward flight is usual with this kind of behaviour, and the marvellous thing is that no causal connection is ever made, either by the mythomaniac between the story he tells and the failure he eventually experiences (for he learns nothing from this cold dash of reality), or by the buyer on credit between the gratification he obtains magically from his purchase and the payments he must subsequently meet. In this respect the credit system is the acme of man’s irresponsibility towards himself: the buyer alienates the payer, and even though they are in fact the same person, the system ensures, by separating them in time, that they never become aware of the fact.

THE AMBIGUITY OF THE DOMESTIC OBJECT In sum, credit pretends to promote a civilization of modern consumers at last freed from the constraints of property, but in reality it institutes a whole system of integration which combines social mythology with brutal economic pressure. Credit is an ethic, but it is also a politics. The tactic of credit works in tandem with that of personalization to give objects a sociopolitical function they never used to have. We no longer live in the age of serfdom or in the age of usury, but both these constraints have been incorporated in abstract and amplified form into the realm of credit. Credit is a social realm, a temporal realm, a realm of things by virtue of which, and by virtue of the strategy that imposes it, objects are able to fulfil their function as accelerators and multipliers of tasks, satisfactions and expenditures. They thus become a kind of trampoline, their very inertia serving as a centrifugal force which lends everyday life its rhythm - its tendency to forward flight, 132

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its precariousness and disequilibrium. At the same time, objects, on which domesticity once depended as a means of escape from the pressures of society, now on the contrary serve to shackle the domestic universe to the circuits and constraints of the social one. By means of credit — which is a free gift and a formal freedom but also a social sanction, a form of subjection and a fatality at the very heart of things - domesticity is directly colonized: it acquires a kind of social dimension, but in the very worst sense. The most extreme and absurd effects of credit are eloquent: for example, when car payments are so pressing that the buyer cannot afford petrol for his vehicle, we have reached the point where the human project, filtered and fragmented by economic pressures, begins to feed upon itself. A fundamental truth about the present system emerges here too: objects now are by no means meant to be owned and used but solely to be produced and bought. In other words, they are structured as a function neither of needs nor of a more rational organization of the world, but instead constitute a system determined entirely by an ideological regime of production and social integration. Indeed, private objects properly so called no longer exist: thanks to their multiple use, it is the social order of production, with its own particular complicities, which now haunts the intimate world of the consumer and his consciousness. This penetration also marks the fading of any prospect of effectively contesting or transcending that social order.


Everything Explained: The Breakdown

Objects serve as the set and props on the theatrical stage of our lives. They situate an individual’s character or personality in a context.


My Favorite Things // Melanie Wallendorf & Eric J. Arnould

MY FAVORITE THINGS Melanie Wallendorf & Eric J. Arnould

Material objects play many roles in social life. They provide sustenance, shelter, safety, and entertainment. They serve as tools to accomplish tasks. They provide mobility. They counterbalance the effects of nature by keeping us dry when nature is wet, warm when it is cold, cool when it is hot, shaded when it is too sunny, and in the light when it is too dark. For 50 years paleo-archaeologists have told us that material objects have helped us “make” ourselves as human beings (Childe 1936; Issac et al. 1979).

THINGS AND SELFHOOD Objects serve as the set and props on the theatrical stage of our lives. They situate an individual’s character or personality in a context (Goffman 1959; Holman 1980; Levy 1959; Mick 1986; Turner 1969). We use objects as markers to denote our characters for others; we also use objects as markers to remind ourselves of who we are. In this sense we derive our self-concept from objects. That is, we use objects to convey and extend our self-concepts (Belk 1987a) to others as well as to demonstrate the self-concept to ourselves. Objects convey our connection to others and help express our sense of self (Levy 1981; McCracken 1986; Rook 1985). For the most part, modern consumer research published in marketing has not 135

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examined directly the phenomenon of attachment to objects and the meaning of object ownership (Belk 1985) despite the interest of certain of its forebearers (Veblen 1899). It has, however, examined brand preference and brand loyalty (Jacoby and Chestnut 1978) and involvement (Bloch and Richins 1983), which all tie the individual to the brand the historical political-economic uses and meanings of objects among cultures of traditional anthropological interest (Appadurai 1986; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Mintz 1979; Mukerji 1983; Society for Economic Anthropology 1986). Collectively, the research on ownership in a number of fields leads us to contend that attachment to objects as symbols of security, as expressions of self-concept, and as signs of one’s connection to or differentiation from other members of society is a usual and culturally universal function of consumption. The primary purpose of the work reported here is to conceptually and empirically explore the�nature and meaning of the attachments people form to objects that they designate as special or favorite. In the United States, the phenomenon extends to the infant’s security blanket (Passman 1976; Passman and Adams 1981; Passman and Halonen 1979; Passman and Longeway 1982; Weisberg and Russell 1971). Such attachments develop very early and are common; preference for a favorite object has been found to exist in more than 70 percent of six-month old infants (Furby and Wilke 1982). The familiar blanket provides a psychological feeling of comfort quite apart from its utilitarian warmth-giving properties. It serves as a transition object enabling the child to move away from the security of parents and venture into the physical world. Since objects carry a self-concept-based meaning, losing or severing our connection to objects non-voluntarily can change the meaning of life for individuals. For example, 136

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Goffman (1961) has described the “stripping process” that occurs when individuals enter what he calls “total institutions,” such as prisons or mental hospitals. Upon arrival, an individual’s clothing and personal possessions are taken away. Institutional clothing and objects are issued for the person’s use but are not under his or her full control. Thus, ownership of objects disappears as the institution takes on the role of providing objects for one’s use. Connections to “normal” life on the “outside” are severed, and individuals gradually assume the dependent role of patient or prisoner. In practice, institutionalized persons find it difficult to claim or reclaim their “normalcy.” Institutionalized mentally retarded patients stripped of objects for maintaining self-definition often attempt to reverse the stripping process by acquiring objects that others (“normal people”) define as useless, such as soiled wrapping paper and expired coupons (Carroll 1968). These objects then take on new meaning in differentiating the self from others. Patients attempt to appear “normal” to reestablish individuality, and to display connection to the outside world by collecting treasured “junk.” Their behavior is considered inappropriate because they confer treasured status on objects most people consider rubbish (Thompson 1979). Social scientists have found that when elderly people move into a nursing home, they feel a loss of status (Sherman and Newman 1977-78). To compensate or purchase context. Yet these topics focus on the acquisition and prepurchase phase of buying, rather than on ownership and consumption and their meanings to consumers. Because consumption is an important concept in understanding demand and consumer behavior generally, some researchers have begun to address questions of ownership and the meaning of consumption (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Levy 1981) and 137

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more macro issues such as product constellation meanings (Solomon and Assael 1987) and cultural brandscapes (Sherry 1986). In anthropology, objects have usually been discussed in terms of their role in the production process or in gift exchange (Gregory 1982; Hyde 1983; Levi-Strauss 1979; Mauss 1967). Traditionally, the movement away from locally made material culture and the adoption of culturally alien objects was merely viewed as an inevitable, if regrettable, part of the acculturation process (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Stout 1947; Wallendorf and Reilly 1983). More recent work has begun to clarify attenuate this feeling, many bring with them a cherished object. Their strong attachment to this object is usually not based on its monetary value. Rather it holds symbolic value and provides a sense of security as well as continuity in one’s link with others. In Mexico City, even deeply impoverished families cling to religious icons and use a shelf in their homes as an altar to symbolize their hopes for a better future in the afterlife (Lewis 1969). Because objects serve as personal storehouses of meaning, losing all of one’s material possessions is experienced as a tragedy and a violation of the self in America. The emergence of victim support groups and the felt inadequacy of safety nets like homeowner’s or renter’s insurance indicate how much we dread such losses. Loss of objects implies loss of “face” and status because the objects are a representation of self. (See Belk 1987a for an extended discussion of loss of possessions leading to a diminished sense of self.) In summary then, a wide range of phenomena from the baby’s unself-conscious attachment to objects to the trauma of loss through theft, catastrophe, or institutionalization indicates how important possessions are to the American sense of self. Data from other cultures provide comparable illustrations of the fundamental attachment between people and 138

My Favorite Things // Melanie Wallendorf & Eric J. Arnould

objects. Although the meaning of self differs cross-culturally and varies in its link with individualism (Hsu 1985), the fact that these conceptions of self are expressed to some degree through objects seems to be universal. There are many examples from around the world of tribal peoples’ wholesale. Ingenuous embracing of western objects, which from a utilitarian viewpoint are completely out of place in the tribal context (Arnould and Wilk 1982). In the South Pacific in the wake of World War II. Veritable “cargo cults” grew up as “big men” in tribal cultures sought to obtain western objects by supernatural means (Worseley 1968). Acculturation studies in the forties documented the apparently willing adoption of all manner of manufactured goods by non western peoples (e.g., Stout 1947 on the San Bias Cuna), and the pages of National Geographic still contain pictures of naked tribes people enjoying western consumables (e.g.. Devillers 1983: Tweedie 1980; Wentzel 1978). Such attachment behaviors give expression to self-differentiation by drawing sharp contrast with the cultural context in which they are embedded. The societal impact of loss has also been documented in tribal cultures. Famous case studies such as Metraux (1959) on Amazonia, Sharp (1968) on Australia, and Turnbull (1972) on Africa document the breakdown of societies and sociability when key objects in the material culture inventory were lost or replaced through the incursion of manufactures or money. In these cases, of course, loss is culture-wide rather than individual. Recently some work has attempted to compare cases. Deciphering why some objects were accepted and some rejected by a culture, and why the loss of control over only certain kinds of objects results in radical deculturation (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Gregory 1982; Leach and Leach 1983; Strathern 1969). 139

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A process similar to Goffman’s “stripping” is characteristic of rites of passage in nonresident ritual contexts. Initiates are often deprived of their possessions as they assume new social identities. During the ritual transformation, special objects and foods are designated for their use. Upon successful completion of the ritual transformation, initiates emerge usually with a new social identity, but frequently with new objects as well, such as tribal scars, a spear, a new hairstyle, or a new wrap (Farb and Armelagos 1980; Turner 1969; Van Gennep 1960). From these diverse examples, it appears that attachment to and derivation of meaning from objects occurs among all peoples, including nomadic tribes that place a premium on mobility. For example, for the Samburu and the Nuer of East Africa, cattle take on a multi layered meaning. For cattle pastoralists, diverse values and notions about status ranks are intertwined in one type of object (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Goldschmidt 1969; Lincoln 1981; Verdon 1982). Among the !Kung San bushman tribes of Namibia and Botswana, multiple meanings are conveyed by beaded headbands. Weissner (1984) describes how band affiliation, degree of acculturation to surrounding Bantu custom, and even belief in the traditional behavioral norm of “walking softly” are conveyed through headband design elements. In many cultures in the Third World, the number of commodities in circulation and the frequency and multiplicity of occasions for their exchange, consumption, and display have been more limited than in the West (Appadurai 1986). These cultures frequently compress multiple meanings into a few types of property, rather than into the many types of objects such as clothing (McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb 1982; Solomon 1983; Veblen 1899), automobiles (Evans 1959), homes and home furnishings (Davis 1955; Felson 1976; Kron 140

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1983; Lynes 1980; Warner, Meeker, and Eels 1960), and foods (Farb and Armelagos 1980) used by Westerners for conveying such meanings. In both Western and nonresident cultures, attachment to particular favorite objects as symbols need not be viewed as something that is evil or bad, as has been the perspective toward the more general phenomenon of materialism taken by many religions (Belk 1983) and societal critics (Looft 1971; Wachtel 1983). Research on elderly Americans finds that individuals who lack cherished possessions have lower life satisfaction scores than those who have such objects (Sherman and Newman 1977-78). Specific object attachments need not take over the individual’s orientation to life and develop into an all-consuming materialism or attachment to objects as in the case offanatical collectors (Baudrillard 1968). Indeed, fierce competition to obtain kula armshells and necklaces, some of which have circulated for generations in the New Guinea archipelago, always en tails their future exchange for different but equally valued markers of status and facilitates the extension of social networks rather than the expression of pure covetousness (Leach and Leach 1983; Malinowski 1922). Such objects permit individual differentiation and self-expression for a while, but the meaning of that self expression is inextricably intertwined with connection to a larger group. On the basis of the study of beaded headbands among the! Kung San, Weissner (1984) hypothesizes that objects fuel a universal dialectic of style through which three fundamental social processes are enacted: differentiation, comparison, and integration. Her views have been echoed by other scholars working in both Western and nonresident contexts (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Kopytoff 1986). Although specific meanings differ in varying cultural contexts, consumption is an activity by 141

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which consumers create intelligibility in the world and make visible and stable the categories of culture as they experience them (Douglas and Isherwood 1979).

OBJECTIVES This conceptual foundation leads us to four empirical research questions in our attempt to understand the meaning of individuals’ cherished objects in two quite dissimilar cultures. First, the analysis attempts to clarify the nature of attachment to favorite objects for the two groups of respondents. Second. Relationships between attachment to a specific favorite object and more general attachment phenomena are addressed. Respondents’ levels of generalized possessiveness (a component of materialism as conceptualized and measured by Belk 1984) and their social linkages (cf. Bott 1971) were measured. The extent of overlap of each of these with favorite object attachment is then examined. The third research question involves cross-cultural comparisons of levels of favorite object attachment and the generalized possessiveness component of materialism. These results are presented in an attempt to determine cultural differences as reflected in these measures. Finally, the role of three components of society, which are also enduring and distinguishing components of self-concept, namely culture, age (Erikson 1959; Furby 1978; Neugarten 1969), and gender (Mead 1949; Tournier 1981), are examined to see how they structure and explain favorite object selection cross-culturally. Differences in these three components would be expected to be expressed through favorite objects. They should then be found to have not only strong and enduring linkages to self-concept, but also strong linkages structuring favorite object selection. Multiple methods are used to explore the experiential meaning and history of favorite objects as expressions of self(Holbrook and Hirschman 1982). Analy142

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sis focuses on understanding common and contrasting structures in informants’ emie representations of meaning.

METHOD Samples and Settings In-home personal interviews were conducted with two samples of adults selected to cover variation in culture, socioeconomic group, and domestic group life cycle stage. Cultural differences were necessary to assess the generalizability of favorite object attachments as expressions of identity. Thus, two highly dissimilar cultures with respect to economic development, materialistic values, and breadth of opportunities for expression of self through objects were chosen. Within each culture, socioeconomic and domestic cycle diversity were desired to adequately capture intracultural, as well as intercultural variance. The first sample, consisting of 300 adults, was drawn from a major Southwestern American city. The city is characterized by rapid immigration from other parts of the U.S. Most residences are of recent construction, characterized by open space plans with expansive views of the surrounding mountains. The local economy is service based and economic growth is tied to population growth. Consistent with the hot climate and western imagery, lifestyles tend to be casual rather than formal. And because most citizens are recent arrivals, they tend to be open rather than tradition-directed. The other sample of 45 adults was drawn from the Hausa-speak-ing peasants living in three villages in Zinder province of the Niger Republic (Arnould 1984a). As part of ongoing ethnographic fieldwork, the second author obtained responses from the Nigerien sample using a similar semi structured interview. Difficulties of translation, sample member identification. Interview situation, and establishing rap143

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port resulted in a smaller sample size for the Nigerien group. Niger is landlocked in the African Sahel and was a site of severe drought from 1969-1973 and again in 1983. Located in the center of Niger, Zinder province lies to the north of the Hausa market centers in Nigeria. Victim to the pattern of regional, sectoral, and social disarticulation typical of peripheral capitalist development in Africa (Amin 1973, 1976; de Janvry 1981), Zinder’s fragile modern economy has never recovered from the collapse of the export-oriented peanut trade in the early 1970s (Franke and Chasin 1980). In 19851986, real prices were comparable to those in 1977-1978 and prices of many rural handicrafts had hardly. Changed in that time. Although there is a lively periodic market system (Arnould 1985), there is nonetheless little scope for capital accumulation or discretionary consumption. The economy has been characterized as one condemned to economic involution (Arnould 1984b). Despite regional, occupational, ethnic, and class differences, Islam is “culturally rooted” in daily life. Unlike JudeoChristian religions, the Islamic tradition makes no distinction between religious, civil, and criminal law (Schact 1964). In the Islamic conception of property, limited use rights, as distinct from full ownership, are commonly recognized (Schact 1964). Proscriptions on usury coexist with a strong value of investment in trade, livestock, and urban real estate. In Zinder, fidelity to the practice of almsgiving and belief in the dignity of poverty coexist with the notion that wealth brings happiness and the near homology in day-to-day life between the status of bourgeois and that of pilgrim to Mecca (Hausa, masc. elhadji; fem. hadjiya). A typical household’s compound in rural Zinder includes a round thatch or adobe thatchroofed hut for each adult wife. A wealthy man may also build himself a square adobe house used to entertain male visitors 144

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and as a storehouse. Floors are of sand; doors are of corrugated metal or matting. Clothes are usually hung on the wall. Although some people have cheap valises or metal trunks. Houses are simply furnished with a bed and palm fiber or plastic mats. Rich people possess a prayer rug or woven hangings. There may be a small kerosene lamp. Outside there is often a small area for tethering goats and sheep. Women cook in the courtyard on a tripod of stones using clay and gourd vessels and wooden gourd. And tin utensils. Enamelware food preparation and serving dishes are now commonplace. Tools (mortars and pestles, axes, hoes, a bucket, a flashlight, and knives are most common) and small wooden stools are often scattered around. Thus, both economically and materially. Life in Zinder is quite a contrast to life in the Southwestern United States. Ethnic sub populations represented in the two samples were too small to allow subanalysis. Census data for the American sample and field worker knowledge of popu-lation composition for the Nigerien sample permit us to claim that the populations were representative in terms of key demographics such as gender, income, age, and, where appropriate. Home ownership and education. Data Collection Methods Three methods of data collection were employed: surveys, photographs, and focus group interviews. For most of the concepts of interest, self-report measures were deemed appropriate. However, for the primary concept of interest-nature of attachment to the favorite object-an approach employing more than one method (Campbell and Fiske 1959) was used. For Southwest American respondents, two methods of data collection were employed: (I) individuals were asked questions about their favorite object, and (2) individuals were photographed with their favorite object. 145

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As suggested by Wagner (1979) and Collier (1967), the use of photographs in social science should go beyond merely using photos as illustrations (cf. Danforth 1982; Lynes 1980; Susman 1973). The photographic materials should be coded to become raw data for analysis (cf. Felmlee, Eder, and Tsui 1985; Rheingold and Cook 1975), an approach that is receiving increasing attention in consumer research (cf. Belk 1987b; Heisley and Levy 1987; Heisley, McGrath, and Sherry 1987; Wallendorf and Westbrook 1985). The photos in this study became raw data through structured analysis (Collier and Collier 1986) of the physical relation between the respondent and the favorite object. Close physical proximity was taken to indicate a high level of attachment to the object (Mershon 1985). This is similar to other research in which physical proximity has been used as an unobtrusive measure of social connection and structure between racial groups (Campbell, Kruskal, and Wallace 1966), within peer groups (Feshbach and Feshbach 1963; Hall 1969), in families (Milgram 1977), and in field studies of animals (Imanishi 1960). In this project, the physical proximity between the respondent and the favorite object in the photographs was coded using a five-point scale. The coding was done with one coder on two occasions, and once by another coder. Intrarater reliability was 0.90; interrater reliability with two coders was 0.93. These levels meet reliability criteria established by Nunnally (1967). This analysis uses the average of the three codings of each photograph. In Niger also, two methods of data collection were employed: (I) individuals were asked about their favorite objects as in the Southwest. But in addition, (2) focus-group interviews were employed to discuss patterns of introduction and diffusion of items identified as recent popular introductions into the local material culture inventory. Information neces146

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sary to place responses in context has been collected over a number of years using a variety of ethnographic methods (Arnould 1984a). Both samples were administered an interview schedule originally developed for the U.S. but also adapted to the cultural and linguistic situation of Niger. In Niger. The questions were translated into the Hausa language. However, this was not sufficient for rendering them culturally and contextually appropriate. Although it introduces nonparallel methods in the two cultures, some scaling and meaning changes were made. For example, for the Americans, frequency of talking with others on the phone was a scale item used in measuring social linkages. In Niger, other forms of social communication were included such as attending village association meetings, eating with friends, and sharing Moslem thanksgiving. Thus, cultural appropriateness was given priority over linguistic equivalence in scale construction. As part of the interview, respondents were asked a series of questions to identify possessive attitudes towards possessions in general, to explore the extent and importance of social linkages, and to identify a favorite object. In the sample drawn from the American Southwest, the choice of objects was confined to the living room. This limitation enables greater comparability of the commonalities of expression through favorite objects between the Nigeriens and the more possession-rich Americans. This area of the house is one which is the most public and therefore the most involved in impression management in American culture (Goffman 1959). It is designed to present to others our sense of ourselves and our personalities (Baudrillard 1968; Kron 1983). Laumann and House state that “the living room reflects the individual’s conscious and unconscious attempts to express a social identity� (1970, p. 323). In short, we would 147

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expect to find favorite objects that are expressions of some important aspects of the self in American living rooms. Kron (1983) recognizes that there is greater female than male influence over the American living room. Restricting choice to the living room could produce gender differences in degree of attachment to objects chosen. However, since the living room is more gender neutral than other areas of the house (e.g., kitchen and bedroom), it was selected as the best area for containing both male and female expressions of social identity. In Zinder, respondents were simply asked to name any favorite object with no restriction of location applied to their choice. The justification is that the scope of consumption for these rural people is simplified in comparison to that of Americans. And since the notion of finely graded responses is culturally unfamiliar, the respondents were asked to rate their liking for the favorite object on a four- rather than seven-point Likert scale as used with the Americans.

RESULTS Forms of Attachment Posscssircness. Although the primary focus in this study is attachment to a specific object, the relation between this form of attachment and other more general expressions of attachment was also of interest. The component of materialism that is a general attachment to possessions has been termed “possessiveness.” A nine-item summed scale to measure possessiveness (seven items in Niger), which has been demonstrated to have fair reliability, convergent validity, and criterion validity in U.S. cultural settings (Belk 1984, 1985) was employed to ascertain the respondent’s more general attachment to all material possessions. This scale includes items addressing general attachment toward all of one’s possessions as well as control over possessions and feelings concerning loss of 148

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possessions. However, the scale items do not focus on attachment to specific possessions or what are termed “favorite objects” in the current work. Some changes were made in the scale items to render them contextually appropriate in Niger, although they remain conceptually comparable to the original scale utilized in the American sample. Because the scales for generalized possessiveness are different in the two cultures, for comparison, the means for each culture were transformed to standardized scores by dividing by their standard deviations. This resulted in standardized group scores of 4.0 I (raw s.d. = 2.65) for the Nigeriens and 4.62 (raw s.d. = 4.49) for the Southwest Americans. A I-test of these standardized group scores revealed differences that are statistically significant at the 0.0001 level (I = 3.79, df= 344). These findings suggest that Americans are substantially more materialistically possessive than are the Nigeriens. This should not be surprising. The major consumption goal of Zinderois elicited in surveys (Crow and Henderson 1979; Republique du Niger 1985) remains nutritional self-sufficiency. In contrast to the American consumers, Zinder’s consumers have not yet been taught to consume and how much to consume “the good life” by market mediated consumption and mass media advertising (Belk and Pollay 1985). Social Linkage. Also of interest is the individual’s attachment to other people. One might wonder whether attachment to favorite objects can fill the void of alienation from other people. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) found, however, that individuals who claimed not to be materialistic because they did not have things that had special meaning for them also lacked special close friendships and relationships. Those who had strong ties to other people represented these ties in special material objects. Social network linkage was measured in a summed 149

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scale of factor scores for seven items in the U.S. sample and thirteen in the Nigerien sample. The items were selected to reflect common ways individuals maintain strong attachments to other people. The items employed in the U.S. sample include frequency of entertaining others in the home, talking with friends on the phone, marital attachment, number of people in the household, number of financially dependent children, number of relatives living in the same town, and number of club memberships. In Niger, some culturally irrelevant items were deleted while other items were added, including number of persons entertained on a major festive occasion, attendance at village moots, and sensitivity to gossip (see Exhibits I and 2 for comparisons). These items were factor analyzed and varimax rotation was used on the principal factors. In the U.S. sample, three factors were extracted with eigen values greater than I accounting for 58 percent of the variance in these divergent human contact items (see Exhibit I). In the Niger sample, although five factors with eigenvalues greater than I accounted for 67 percent of the variance, only the first three were used, given the limited sample size (n = 45) and the relatively large number of items included in the analysis (13). These three factors have eigenvalues larger than 1.5 and account for 48 percent of the variance (see Exhibit 2). Since the present work is not attempting to empirically decompose social linkage, but rather is examining its more molar overall relation to favorite object attachment, factor scores were summed across the three factors for an overall measure of person attachment. Because different scale items were used in the two samples, cross-cultural statistical comparisons of social network density are not appropriate. Favorite Object Attachment. In the portion of the questionnaire dealing with favorite objects, one question 150

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addressed degree of attachment to the favorite object. In the U.S. sample, this was a seven-point Likert scale item; in the Nigerien sample, this was a four-point coding of reported attachment. We recognize that such a measure should be somewhat skewed given the self selection of objects that hold favorite status; the scale was used only for cross-cultural comparison of the extremes of expressed attachment. That is, this scale indicates the maximal degree to which an individual invests the self in an object. Since one was a seven- and the other a four-point scale, the group means were transformed for comparability by dividing by their standard deviations, resulting in means of 3.72 for the Nigeriens (raw s.d. = 0.72) and 4.28 for the Southwest Americans (raw s.d. = 1.35). A I-test of the difference between these standardized group means for attachment to favorite object was statistically significant (I = 3.52, df = 344. p < 0.000 I). Thus, on average, the U.S. sample is more strongly attached to their favorite objects than is the Nigerien sample. Relationships Among Favorite Objects Possessiveness and Social Network Linkage. The relationships between degree of attachment to favorite object (measured verbally and photographically), possessiveness, and social network linkage are shown in Table I as measured by Pearson correlation coefficients. There is little consistent empirical overlap among these three types of attachment across the two samples. In the U.S. sample, generalized possessiveness bears a weak negative relationship with selfreported attachment to favorite object (r = -0.15, p = 0.05). Conversely, in the Nigerien sample, generalized possessiveness bears a weak positive relationship to self-reported attachment to favorite object (r = 0.28, p = 0.028). Overall, there is evidence for a substitution effect of favorite object for possessiveness in the Southwest American sample, but a collaborative effect in the Nigerien sample. However, these relations are sufficiently weak to claim 151

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that generalized possessiveness and favorite object attachment are conceptually and empirically separable. Although they are weakly correlated empirically, it appears that neither is merely an expression of the other. Favorite object attachment is not strongly related to generalized possessiveness or attachment to other people. Since these are distinct phenomena, favorite object attachment requires additional contextual analysis to specify its nature in particular cultural contexts.

OVERALL MEANINGS OF FAVORITE OBJECTS Respondents in both cultures provided insights into their lives when they explained why they liked a particular object. When respondents were asked why they chose a particular object as their favorite, they did not focus on functionally based performance attributes. For roughly 60 percent of the American sample (n = 171) the reasons given reflected attachments based upon personal memories. The object was a favorite because it was a reminder of a friend or family member. A vacation trip, or an event in the respondent’s past. For 6 percent of the U.S. sample (n = 18), the object was a favorite because it reminded the respondent of the person who had made it. Typically as a gift. The meaning of these objects. Then, often derives from symbolic person, event, and maker attachments rather than from their physical attributes. This is not surprising since 45 percent of the U.S. respondents received their favorite object as a gift, indicating the unique meaning of objects selected and given as gifts (Caplow 1984; Sherry 1983). Like the infants who do not choose blankets that are physically similar to their own security blankets (Weisberg and Russell 1971). adults layer meanings on objects that do not derive from physical features, as with souvenirs and tourist photographs (MacCannell 1976). 152

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Some U.S. respondents chose functional (rather than display) objects such as chairs or clocks (see Table 2). Nevertheless, the reason given for these attachments typically derives from a shared history between the person and the object, such as between the television character of Archie Bunker and “his” chair. This history is not purchased with the object. After years of use. The web of semiotic and symbolic associations spun around the object by which it becomes decommodified and “singularized” for the individual (Kopytoff 1986) come to be the reasons for its selection as a favorite object. The object’s aesthetic value, or its auto-erotic quality (Hyde 1983; Rook 1985) also emerged as a factor in the Nigeriens’ choice of object. Nearly 16 percent cited this as a reason for selecting the favorite object. However, the conventional nature of the objects underscores the role of culture in the transfer of auto-erotic meaning between persons and objects (McCracken 1986). In eliciting attitudes towards possession and loss, Nigerien informants were quick to qualify remarks that might indicate great attachment to objects. While theft makes people “hot” (Hausa, zafi), the loss of possessions is expected to be borne with patience (Hausa, hakuri). One informant expressed concern that if he amassed too many possessions, they might be lost and wasted through divine intervention. Nigerien attitudes towards possessions are clarified with interpretive contextual data. Periodic droughts regularly reduce consumption decisions to the problem of obtaining adequate food, clothing, and shelter. Against the backdrop of Islamic attitudes towards property, the search for psychological well-being through discretionary consumption in Niger is further constrained both by the limited agricultural productivity and state economic policy. Direct and indirect taxa153

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tion (e.g., contributions to festivals and dignitaries) and cheap food policies limit peasant purchasing power (de Janvry 1981; Olivier de Sardan 1984; Watts and Bassett 1986). Distortions in regional development patterns and the exchange rate drain human and monetary capital out of Zinder into Nigeria (Evans 1977). As a result, rural Nigeriens are not socialized to choose among a plethora of alternate material sources of satisfaction as are Southwest Americans. Material satisfaction in the countryside entails dependence upon or power over other people (Baier 1974, 1976; Kirk-Green 1974). Zinder is an economy and a culture (cf. Hyde 1983) in which personal well-being is measured not solely in wealth in objects, but in the ability to give and to compel persons to reciprocate. Exchanges between kin of clothing, items of adornment, or other possessions, even favored ones, are commonplace. Annual tithes are paid to persons in positions of both religious and secular authority. Taken together, findings from the two samples recall those of Myers (1985) and of Csikszentmihalyi and RochbergHalton (1981). The latter note that the assignment of meaning to objects is flexible since it does not derive from the physical characteristics of the object. Like dialectical variation in language, the same object will have different meanings to different people because of its different associations to them. These authors state that “things are cherished not because of the material comfort they provide, but for the information they convey about the owner and his or her ties to others� (1981, p. 239). Our work shows that these individual nuances of meaning are overshadowed by cultural differences in the meaning not only of objects but of possessiveness itself.

GENDER AND FAVORITE OBJECTS Differences between men and women in their selection of 154

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favorite objects exist in both samples. As shown in Table 2, U.S. women are more likely than men to choose handicrafts, antiques, and representational items such as photographs of family members. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to choose art pieces, functional items, and plants and other living things. The overall relation between gender and type of favorite object among Southwest Americans as tested by a X2 test was statistically significant at p = 0.00 I. In Zinder, gender is also strongly related to the type of favorite object selected (see Table 3). Commonly named favorite objects were religious books, including copies of the Koran. They were named by 22 percent of informants, and exclusively by men. Men indicate that they value these objects for their instrumental value, either as a (spiritual) link with the divine or as a (magical) agent of protection against ill-wishers or evil spirits. Men’s favorite possessions, including religious books, charms, swords, and horses, are virtually all symbolic of real or desired authority over persons or the spiritual world. Other frequently named items included machine or handwoven tapestries (32 percent). The former feature “Hindu” scenes or scenes of Mecca. The latter are traditional strip weavings in form, but today typically incorporate the Nigerien national colors (orange, white, green) or emblems. Next in frequency came silver jewelry (IS percent). including massive bracelets or necklaces of “Zinder crosses.” Both types of items were named exclusively by women. Cultural ideals of beauty, notions of prestige, and association with senior female relatives were all linked to these items. These items are usually given to brides upon marriage. They are commonly employed in competitive displays between women on major religious holidays or during household life crisis rituals (baptisms and marriages). Thus, these items are symbolic of 155

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women’s connections to women, both through kinship and informal politics. In both cultures, women frequently chose items made for or given to them by others, antiques or heirlooms that tie them to previous generations, and representational items (e.g., photos) depicting their children, spouses, and grandchildren. Yet, in the Zinder sample, the relation between gender and social linkage (r = -0.31, P = 0.02), indicates greater density of men’s social networks. This finding may be explained by scale construction for social linkage and the gender roles specified in this Moslem culture. In Niger, men’s social networks tend to be more extended than women’s. Since they have greater freedom of movement. Women’s networks are comprised of stronger, more private ties. Men’s connections, expressed through gift exchanges external to the household and village, are best captured by the scale. Yet women’s favorite objects are more expressive of social connections. In the two settings then, men most often chose craft goods and artworks to represent ideals. Functional objects to depict levels of comfort they have obtained, and religious texts, charms, plants, and pets to demonstrate their mastery over nature. These findings of gender differences are consistent with previous research. Sherman and Newman (1977-78) found that elderly men and women were equally likely to have a cherished possession. However, they differed in what they cherished. Women chose photographs, while men chose what were called consumer items. Csikszentmihalyi and RochbergHalton (1981) interpret similar findings as indicating that cherished possessions of American women serve to maintain a network of social ties. Women’s role in maintaining social ties through gift-giving in America has been noted previously (Caplow 1984). Regardless of type of object chosen, women and men differ in their degree of attachment to their favorite 156

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objects. Using a self-report seven-point scale, U.S. women indicate a higher level of liking or attachment to favorite objects than do men (mean for women = 5.98, mean for men = 5.61, t = 2.38, p = 0.018). Although both were instructed to select their favorite objects, women report a higher level of liking for the object than do men: However, in Zinder, the four-point scale showed no significant difference between genders in the level of liking for a favored object. As noted earlier, these gender differences may be an artifact of locationally constraining object choice in the U.S.

AGE AND FAVORITE OBJECTS Age also mediates the relation between the individual and favorite object, but the overall relation is weaker than that for gender (see Table 4). As Southwest Americans age, they are less likely to choose functional as opposed to display items as favorite objects. In both cultures, as adults age, they acquire social history that appears to be represented in objects. Younger people are in a life phase focused on accumulation of the functional items needed for independent living and expression of the emerging self(Wells and Gubar 1966). They appear to focus more on hedonic pleasures than on the maintenance of intergenerational ties. In the U.S. sample. The tendency to select an art object as a favorite object increases with age. This may be interpreted as indicating that as individuals age, they seem to establish a sense of purpose in life and a set of ideals that are expressed in a favorite piece of art. Similarly, representational objects are often selected by older Americans to show intergenerational ties with one’s progeny and spouse. The life review process of the elderly culminating in ego integration (Erikson 1959) involves a reflection on one’s life. In this stage of life, family photographs arranged in secular “shrines” make tan157

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gible the success and fulfillment found through one’s family of procreation. Entertainment items are chosen as favorite objects by all U.S. age groups, although the type of objects differ. Younger people chose stereos as their connection to the music and beat of their age cohort. A number of middle-aged women chose the pianos that their children played during childhood. These women, who seldom play the piano, apparently use the piano as a symbol of children and their accomplishments. In fact, in many homes the research photographs show the piano transformed from a musical instrument into a secular altar on which children’s and grandchildren’s photographs are displayed as a means of memorializing and recalling the memory of one’s children’s music and the (real or imagined) happiness and family togetherness at that stage in the domestic cycle. Older Southwestern Americans who chose entertainment objects typically chose a television set. They often mentioned that it brought the world into their homes. For some with restricted mobility, contact with other humans was one-way, vicarious contact via the television set. Among Southwest Americans, as age increases, there was an increase in the mention of personal and maker attachment reasons and a decrease in the mention of object-based characteristics as the reason for selecting the item (see Table 5). This tendency accords with the interpretation that age increases one’s inclination to represent social history in a favorite object. However, the data do not indicate that degree of attachment to favorite objects increases with age. In fact, Erikson’s (1959) interpretation of life span development sees the psychological task of the elderly as acceptance of life as it was and acceptance of the inevitability of death. This would imply that the elderly might exhibit a gradual detachment from 158

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material objects in general and favorite objects in particular. This detachment process is indirectly reflected in the findings of this research in two ways. Among Americans, length of favorite object ownership increases with each age group up to the 55-64 age group. However, it then sharply turns down (one-way ANOVA F = 6.5, p < 0.0001). The means for the 5564 and 65 and older age groups show a statistically significant difference from each other (l = 2.65, p = 0.015), although other adjoining age groups do not show such differences. These findings are consistent with research on the more generalized phenomenon of materialism, which shows that materialism bears a curvilinear relation to age, peaking in middle age (Belk 1986). Is the oldest group gradually parting with favorite objects, perhaps by passing them on to their children or grandchildren prior to the time of death? The question merits further study. A second indication of the impact of aging on people’s relation to their favorite objects is indicated by the sevenpoint scale probing degree of liking of the favorite object. The mean on this question was high (x = 5.8. s.d. = 1.4). as should be expected. However, mean responses vary by age group. Favorite object liking in creases with age until 65, then declines sharply (one-way ANOV A F = 2.6, p = 0.02). Between the five age groups from 18-24 through 55-64, as age increases, liking of the favorite object increases. However, in moving from 5564 into the 65 and older age group, liking of the favorite object declines to its lowest level. The difference between these two adjacent age groups is statistically significant (t = 2.24, p = 0.04). This is consistent with Sherman and Newman’s (197778) finding that the old-old (those over 75) are less likely to have a cherished possession than the young-old (those 65-75). In Zinder, age also exerts an effect on the relation between individuals and favored objects, although the overall 159

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relation is secondary to that of gender. Younger people focus more on their hedonic pleasures within a cultural age-related dialectic, even though the possibility of realizing individual hedonic pleasure through market-mediated consumption is a recent phenomenon in Niger. For example, young brides-to-be (ages 13 to 16). lacking the experience to make deliberative consumption decisions on the basis of comparison of functional attributes of products, nonetheless play an innovative role through their expressed desires regarding the bridal trousseau. Because they are allowed whimsy and spontaneity in their prenuptial status, their requests for novel consumption goods are honored. Thus cheap quartz watches, which otherwise have no place in Hausa life, have taken their place among the objects of adornment (koran ado) suitable for giving in marriage. The unprecedented number of products recently introduced into the dowry is indicative of profound changes in Zinder’s economic culture. Like other apparent absurdities in Third World consumption of decontextualized western objects (Arnould and Wilk 1982), they symbolize both a recognition of the authority and power of occidental civilization and a loosening of formal strictures on the statuses to which peasants may aspire (Baudrillard 1968). Dowry, extended from the bride’s family to the husband’s, is unlike bride wealth, which is extended from the husband’s to the wife’s. Though the gifts given may be the same, bride wealth here is a form of gift exchange with all its implications of reciprocity~ and sociability (Hyde 1983: Meillassoux 1981), while dowry is a form of commodity transfer (i.e., inheritance) with no such implications (Goody and Tambiah 1973). The fact that dowry has grown in value and diversity relative to bride wealth indicates a change towards a more open-ended acquisitiveness on the occidental model. 160

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Traditionally, young peasant men who stood in the dependent gandu relationship to their fathers (Arnould 1984a: Goddard 1973: Hill 1972). had no well-defined role in consumption or other realms of sociopolitical life (Meillassoux 1981) as they had little or no control over household income. As in many other nonresident settings (Gregory 1982), their migration for wage labor in the twentieth century has served as a conduit for the introduction of novel consumer goods into village communities. They now express a revised age relation through their preference for wearing “small clothes” (Hausa. k’ ank’ anan kaya), which are secondhand. Locally reconditioned western shirts and pants, and so-called “functionary suits” in opposition to the traditionally styled long, loose shirt, baggy drawstring pants, and embroidered gown and hat (Hausa, man.l’an ka,ra) preferred by rich and elderly men. The new dichotomy in rural clothing styles expresses the long-standing tension between fathers and sons (Hausa. hire: cf. Meillassoux 1981). Wage labor for the sons provokes tension within the household over the disposition of labor, remittances, and other resources (Arnould 1984a, 1984b: Meillassoux 1981: Olivier de Sardan 1984). While the material terms of the opposition in social status between men and their sons has changed. Clothing style helps mediate the tension. Young men prefer their style, which allows them to express their social differentiation through Western goods. It avoids direct comparison with the elders’ style and downplays any competition for resources between them. “Small clothes” and functionary suits symbolically associate young men with the outside world and disassociate them from the constraints of village life. The style also symbolizes their availability for flirtation with unmarried women. To elder men, the wearing of k’ ank’ anan kaya connotes an absence of pretense to a voice in public affairs and household decisions. V-,’earing 161

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117anyan ka.l’a, often first worn when making formal visits to prospective in-laws or at marriage provides a symbol of a younger man’s intention to become a “serious” member of the community and to shed youthful ways. Thus, favorite objects are also used in Niger to denote age-related differences and statues.

RELATION TO FAVORITE OBJECTS IN PHOTOS Overall. U.S. respondents indicated some physical closeness to their favorite objects in the photographs by leaning toward the object or touching it. But only about one-third of the respondents chose to hold or embrace the object. Unlike our original expectations. There was almost no statistical relation between physical proximity to the object in the photographs and self-reported attachment to the object (Pearson correlation coefficient = 0.03. p = 0.68. see Table I). Other interpretations of the meaning of physical proximity were therefore developed. Since there were no differences in physical closeness between either age or gender groups. An explanation based on object meaning rather than self-concept was explored. Those respondents whose attachment to the object is based on person- or maker-based reasons tend to be physically closer to the object when photographed than are those whose attachment to the object is based on intrinsic objectrelated meanings (t = 2.38. p = 0.02). That is, respondents whose attachment to the favorite object is based upon personal memories of other people, past experiences, or the maker of the object tend to touch or embrace their favorite objects in photographs. However. respondents whose attachment to the favorite object is based upon characteristics of the object itself are likely to be more physically distant from the ob162

My Favorite Things // Melanie Wallendorf & Eric J. Arnould

ject when photographed. Rather than being an expression of degree of object attachment or liking as was originally postulated. physical closeness to favorite objects in photographs exemplifies an American expression of personal attachment to others vicariously through objects.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION Attachment to objects is a pervasive phenomenon. Respondents in both cultures identified “favorite� objects. Favorite objects express aspects of self-concept such as gender, age, and distinctive cultural background. People describe their favorite objects as reflecting personal meanings and attachments in both the U.S. and Niger. However, cross-cultural comparison shows that while the kinds and range of favorite objects varies. Favorite objects serve as cultural icons that reflect local culture as experienced by the individual. The wider meanings of objects may not be consciously available to the informants. Yet they become clear when cross-cultural comparisons are made of average levels of attachment and types of objects selected. While the emic perception of Southwest Americans is that favorite objects represent unique, individual history. In fact, conventional meanings such as male mastery over the environment and female connections to family are encoded. Meanings of favorite objects are conventional in Niger, hut informants do not stress the individuality of such meanings. Instead, conformity with shared meaning is often emphasized. Nonetheless favorite objects do provide individualized cues for self-expression. Among Southwest Americans. Affective memories of personal experiences or the person who made the item for the owner are often symbolized. This form of favorite object attachment is associated with stronger liking for the object than is object characteristic-based attach163

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ment. Attachments to objects serving as memory cues coexist with higher levels of social linkage. Thus, favorite objects most often serve as symbols of, rather than replacements for close interpersonal ties. These objects provide individual solutions to the homogenization of value and emphasis on socially integrative meanings inherent in mass-produced objects, as well as the need for individual expression. Individual singularize things through the mutual transfer of meaning and emotion between the objects and the individuals (McCracken 1986). Singularization deactivates objects as commodities and turns them into priceless and seemingly unique icons for individual selfexpression (Kopytoff 1986). For the Nigerien sample, fewer types of objects were selected as favorites, reflecting not only the smaller number of consumer objects owned, but also individual commitment to a restricted set of cultural values. Fewer kinds of objects were favored by Zinderois than by Southwest Americans and virtually all were handmade. This is a predictable result in a recently monetized, virtually advertising-free culture. The meanings attached to objects from which and to which people transfer meanings (McCracken 1986) serve to link individuals to reference groups either cooperatively as with men’s Koranic texts and women’s silver bracelets, or competitively, as with men’s horses and women’s woven tapestries. Nonetheless, within conventional structures of meaning there is room for innovation and personal differentiation. Purchase decisions for such things as quartz watches or Western clothes are made with reference to culturally available ideas about consumption, gender, and age roles, as well as notions derived from exotic models. It appears that favorite object attachment is conceptually and empirically distinct from the more general pos164

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sessiveness component of materialism. The possessiveness component of materialism has very different salience and substantive meaning cross-culturally. This derives from the different world views (weltanschauung) of the two cultures (Judeo-Christian vs. Islamic-animist) and the way in which objects are used, as well as the way object ownership is used in the self-definition and self-expression processes. If in the Southwest U.S ...status is measured by what one has in rural peasant Niger. Wealth in people (ar=ikin I11l1lal/c). expressed through the circulation of conventional objects (especially bride wealth) with shared meanings continues to have cultural significance. From this research, it does not appear that materialism expressed through generalized possessiveness is a cultural universal. Based on this research, we question whether it is, in fact, possible to abstract the meaning of materialism from particular cultural contexts. Clearly, the Belk (1984. 1985) materialism scales are well designed to measure Western informants’ ethnocentric conception of materialism. Belk’s seminal conceptual and scale development work is an anchor for later research. But the scales themselves are not a universal empirical solution to measuring materialism cross-culturally. Fortunately, our interpretation of the Nigerien data was not solely dependent upon scaled surveys for developing an understanding of relations to objects. At this point, we recommend that the original Belk scales be treated as appropriate only to the culture in which they were developed. For cultures other than the United States, scale development should be based on thorough ethnographic studies of the meaning and expression of materialism in that culture. We recognize that our suggestion may preclude the development of a scale to measure materialism that is generalizable across cultures because the concept may vary so widely in its cross-cultural meaning. 165

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From this research, it appears that favorite object attachment is also conceptually and empirically distinct from social linkage. Rather than serving as substitutes for a social network, favorite objects serve to solidify and represent both one’s connections to and differences from others. Thus, favorite object attachment does not appear to be an expression of loneliness, but rather an expression of connections to others. Our research suggests this relationship is valid cross-culturally. The ethnology of exotic, gift-based economies shows social linkage, object attachment, and possessiveness develop particular logical relationships all of their own (e.g., Goodale 1985; Gregory 1982; Leach and Leach 1983: Malinowski 1922). The data indicate that women emphasize social ties through favorite objects. Men represent their accomplishments and mastery in favorite objects. Given the patriarchal structure of both cultures studied, this result is not surprising. But it would be necessary to compare these results with data collected in matrilineal or matriarchal societies before generalizing to a constant gender effect rather than culture effect. Age differences in favorite object attachment seem to represent changing meanings during different life phases and in cultural and economic history. In the Southwestern U.S. ... the break between the groups aged 55-64 and 65 and older showed a sharp disjuncture in contrast to the more continuous evolution through the earlier life phases. The oldest age groups showed a marked decline in length of ownership as well as liking of the favorite object. In Zinder, distinctive consumption behavior was found among young marriage-age people. Who are most likely to be exposed to novel objects. An effort to cross-validate degree of attachment to favorite objects using survey and photographic methods instead provided two different, but complementary, perspectives on object attachment. Photographs capture a different aspect of 166

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a person’s relation to a favorite object than do survey selfreports. Physical closeness to the favorite object in the photograph more clearly expressed closeness to the individual for whom the object stood rather than degree of attachment to the favorite object. Our perspective has been primarily social structural (e.g., culture, age, and gender) and economic in specifying object meanings. We go beyond Douglas and Isherwood (1979), who see objects primarily as points that mark patterns of social relationship. Our research supports the idea that object preference is built up after purchase through a dialectical process in which meaning and affect are transferred between individuals and objects over time, as suggested by Baudrillard (1968). Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981). Levy (1981). and McCracken (1986). Building on this work, we have tried to decipher some of what is transferred in this process. In addition, we have tried to capture some of the dynamism and conditionality inherent in these processes that allow for both stability in meanings and changes in types of preferred object through time. To more fully understand the meaning of possessions and the dynamics of such systems, further research is needed to systematically explore the transmission of objects between individuals within families or households. The research finding that many favorite objects were gifts points to the importance of gifts to recipients. Gift-giving, particularly the giving away of one’s own possessions, needs to be systematically explored longitudinally by studying gift-givers and the system of meanings they attempt to convey with the gift. In this context, studies of matched pairs of heirloom gift-givers and receivers would be particularly enlightening, as would studies of systems in rapid transition such as that in Zinder. In addition, our cross-cultural perspective has shown 167

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that more research is needed to explore how preferences for favorite objects change both within the lifespan of individuals and through time as changes in consumption patterns occur, particularly in developing economies. This research has not addressed the reasons why particular objects become cultural icons and not others. Why pianos and silver bracelets rather than guitars and calabash covers? Later research should build on the understanding that objects veil an underlying flow of social relationships (Douglas and Isherwood 1979) to determine why particular objects are chosen for this task. By focusing on particular favorite objects. This research has attempted to explore a portion of the consumption and ownership processes.


My Favorite Things // Melanie Wallendorf & Eric J. Arnould



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