the consumer is the consumed

by pasdelabas

I was talking to a friend yesterday evening and he mentioned that Facebook was for sale, or was it being floated, not sure. Impressed buy the high valuation he had heard reported we discussed how Facebook made money. He spoke about the value of information relating to the likes and dislikes of the members of Facebook which was saleable commercial knowledge. His main point however was that he found the inversion fascinating whereby the customer of Facebook had become the product itself. He said this as if it was something particular to Facebook or perhaps by implication more broadly to contemporary web business practices.

I suggested that his point was a perfect example of a philosophical statement and it seemed that this was the general situation pertaining to all commodities – the consumer becoming the consumed. It may even apply to collecting wild fruits but certainly with loaves of bread the producer becomes the baker, there may even be a discreet set of desires that are proper to the bread maker. The car I own was not made for me to drive but for me to buy to drive, the emphasis on buying being the point here: clothes are made for us. The consumable item makes the consumer, we take on aspects of identity that come with the items we believe we are consuming.

There is a common sense to this idea but something about it makes me uncomfortable. This is the emphasis in contemporary thought which promotes the distinctive nature of individual reaction to development of the world of consumables (amongst other things). I come from an anthropological background where it is precisely the way different groups behave on a micro social level that is of primary interest rather than the large scale social analysis that might inform say, electoral analysis. There is a belief that there is a primacy to the micro-social level, that there is something inherently valid, practically humanising, in promoting agency rather than always ‘harping on’ about greater ideological structures.

This debate between on the one hand the broad scale structural analysis and the local level valuing-the-individual study, echoes theological debates. The former position is obviously a form of institutional, pre-determinate God-as-all-powerful, all knowing while the latter, a more evangelical sense of individual, perhaps local scale developments of religion or rather spirituality. God is the wider structure that defines the individual: the commodity the wider structure that defines the individual. I’m perhaps being coy here, by commodity I am meaning capitalism, or the system of value exchange that is built around commodities.

So what am I left with here? A dichotomy between large scale bracketing systems that describe us and local inflections of that context. For a researcher there is a formal question to be addressed: where do you focus your interest? At the macro-level there is an issue of repetitiveness – a system-mantra saying it is like this and what happens at this particular micro level here is a materialisation of the system – the repetition is formed around the starting from the macro. The micro tends towards the formation of narratives within research – there is a story here to be told, this is it – here too repetition occurs as we tend to return to ‘the oldest story’ to be told syndrome, repeating known narratives in new forms, a sort of folk tale telling.