inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #151 of 223: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 12 Jan 10 10:16
    
<keta> - obviously you don't, and that's the problem. However in much
of the world, the issue of climate change is taken seriously, though
it's a struggle politically to coordinate responsive action, and I
think that applies pretty much anywhere. In the U.S., which should
lead, we still have people who consider climate change controversial,
like the guy I posted about who said it's a "scam." 

Bruce's Viridian Design Movement was an attempt to raise awareness by
influencing designers, artists, and futurists to think about the
problem - these are folks who have huge impact on our perception and
our rethinking. It was a way to hack the zeitgeist. I think it worked
as well as anything, certainly better than gloom & doom wrangling.

On another subject, I just saw a chart at The Economist on "the
decline of freedom": http://tinyurl.com/yea7l89
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #152 of 223: Gail (gail) Tue 12 Jan 10 17:26
    
Interesting link.  Fewer countries going though the motions of
elections.  Who'd have thunk?   On the other hand, the comments are
slightly amusing.  Freedom is a state of mind, there's bias in
describing democracies as free, etc.  

Perhaps we are more cynical internationally about elections and
freedom, as well as about markets and freedom.  Will that make is wiser
or less willing to do the hard work of trying for fairness and
justice?
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #153 of 223: Rip Van Winkle (keta) Tue 12 Jan 10 20:08
    
Clarification: I see as I scroll back to catch up that Bruce is off to
the mountains... Jon, are we talking amongst ourselves here for the
duration, or does he intend to be back to continue?

I agree that the Veridian Design movement was/is hugely influential --
it really is amazing how much progress has been made based on the
premises there: that solving global warming is a cultural and artistic
design problem, not an economic or political one - first making
participating in the solution more compelling and FUN than not.  And
that civil society is where the crucial inital levers are functional. 
That was right, is right, and it's working.  It continues to work and
propagate despite Bruce's personal signing off on the movement with
what seemed to be more of a whimper than necessary.

I disagree...well, I'm ambivalent about...dismissing the idea of
turning humanity on a dime with a simple, "well you don't."  Many
imposing edifices and behaviours have crumbled "overnight" - Berlin
Wall, Soviet Union, civil liberties post-911, mortgage lending... 
Isn't it possible that the ground worldwide is fertile for a small
compelling cultural tip that changes everything?

On the other hand, if it really is impossible, then the TRUE design
project of now is something totally different.  If we're off the cliff
and there's no practical hope of avoiding triggering runaway
Terraforming, then...well...


So, if it's not too late (but any year now it will be), got any ideas?
 If it is too late, what might be a creative cultural approach to
admitting that and getting practical with the situation?
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #154 of 223: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 12 Jan 10 21:04
    
The conversation can continue here as scheduled, but apparently
without Bruce for a few days.

A significant, really ugly climate event might accelerate responses,
but it would have to be profoundly nasty. You know, I've seen people on
breathing tubes from emphysema take a smoke. That wake-up call has to
ring pretty loud for many people. 
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #155 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 05:50
    
*I'm not dead, people, I'm just up in a mountain village.  A ski
resort mountain village without any snow.

*They say it may snow tomorrow.  Hopefully it won't be one of those
brain-freezing Greenhouse torrents of snow.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #156 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:03
    
*So, about this big issue of consumer culture coming to an end, or
consumer culture showing its age, failing, losing its drive.  A
development of that kind would clearly be no small deal. I may have to
go into the issue in some depth here, so forgive me it this becomes a
lecture from an industrial design professor.

*It might help to begin by clarifying what I think we are talking
about.  I think "consumerism" began in Paris around the 1850s, with the
birth of the first Paris arcades and department stores.  Consumerism
spread from Paris to other major metropolitan centers, London, New
York, Vienna, commonly presaged by some kind of grand exposition of
industry, some kind of Crystal Palace promotional shebang to get the
people properly oiled up.

Consumerism also spread along the railroads with the Montgomery Ward
"wish book."  Logistics always counted for a great deal in consumer
society.

Consumerism often met with severe setbacks, too.  World Wars one and
two put the planet on a war footing.  Most of the world was always far
too poor for consumerism, it simply lacked the productive capacity. 
State-controlled communist regimes outlawed consumerism in large parts
of the world.  

So consumerism didn't become a full-blown -ism, a genuine popular way
of life, until the huge boom in the USA after the second world war.  It
require a huge, long-lasting boom in mass prosperity, mass production,
mass mobility, mass logistics,and  mass promotion to allowed people to
define themselves through their shopping behavior, by things they had.
 

So the thing I call "consumerism" is not all that old.  I don't want
it to be confused with, say, materialism, or the pleasure people take
in possessing things that they like.  I think that consumerism is a
rather specific historical formulation that depended on specific
industrial circumstances.  That's why I think it might be ending now,
or showing some real signs of genuine decline.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #157 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:23
    

Five years ago, in my design book SHAPING THINGS. I was speculating
about what might possibly happen twenty years from now.  I wrote that
"consumers" were a class of users of technology, preceded by a
different class called  "customers," and who might be followed by a
class of people called "wranglers."  

I don't want to recapitulate that argument here, because  it takes too
long, and it might well be wrong or just goofy.   But I do want look
examine some of the driving forces that might profoundly change life
for the future consumer -- forces already present in today's state of
the world.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #158 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:28
    
First, I think we should put aside the specter of hippie
anti-consumerism, or Voluntary Simplicity.  This is simply a lifestyle
choice known as "LOHAS" or "Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability."
It's perfectly well understood by marketers, because it is fifty years
old and about half as old as consumerism itself.  It's not going away
in a hurry, but it's not anti-consumerism, it's counter-consumerism.  

LOHAS has its own Whole Foods style retail chains, and its dietary and
clothing habits, which represent no genuine threat to consumerism at
all. LOHAS represents maybe seven percent of the American population --
much more so in core Blue State urban areas, of course; there are
spots where it dominates -- but could double in size with no problem to
the consumer system.  It represents no more a real threat to
consumerism than, say, New Age beliefs pose to mainstream Christianity.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #159 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:33
    
LOHAS isn't going away in a hurry because consumerism isn't going away
in a hurry.  Barring, of course, climate tipping points, massive
epidemics, nuclear exchanges and all that.

Consumerism has tremendous appeal.  It will not be dying suddenly next
year.  Nobody told us when "consumerism" was starting and we're not
gonna get an official obituary when it ends.  It'll linger like the
aristocratic system still lingers on.

Why do people stop being consumers?  This is like asking ourselves, 
"when did modern women and men stop wanting to be 'ladies and
gentlemen?'"  Clearly they haven't done that, or the wouldn't bluntly
say that they did.  But they did in fact; they don't aspire to it; it's
a hollow shell, a mere shibboleth.  Compare today's 'ladies and
gentlemen' to people with 19th century class structures. Any real
"lady" down at the strip-mall would come across like a complete social
freak: she wouldn't know how to open a door for herself, where to sit,
who to talk to, or what to purchase.

  Post-consumer people would be considered "consumers," but they would
almost entirely lack the actual, real-life behavior of carefree,
full-throated 1950s shopping orgies.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #160 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:39
    
"Consumerism" is not just a matter of buying tons of nice stuff.  It
represents an American freedom, a revolt by monetary capital against
social capital.  You just pay some dollars.  That's the good part, the
grand part of consumerism.   No sumptuary laws, no "this fine stuff is
not for the sordid likes of you."  You scarcely have to open your
mouth.  Being foreign is fine.  Being in a wheelchair is fine.

A plastic card will do, a swipe of the hand will do even, a mere
immaterial gesture.  Just put it in a bag or a box, drive it to a
private home.  There's lots. It's convenient. It saves time and,
compared to pre-consumer society, it saves oceans of raw HUMILIATION.

The humiliation of Communist black markets, of peasant societies.  An
endless network of half-mafia favors, just in order to get a pair of
shoes.  That social-capital wealth is exploitative.  It has winners who
win in glory and  losers who lose in shame.  The wealth is always
rooted in some minor crime, some act of demeaning prostitution, some
burning loss of status.  

Consumerism is also exploitative, but in a way that burns the soul
differently.  It's the dollar who is God.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #161 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:49
    
The stuff I consider a real threat to consumerism isn't the old stuff.
 Consumerism always bred at least some resistance and resentment, but
not enough to topple it.

Even a loss of dollars, poverty, doesn't too much threaten consumerism
-- we had a thriving consumerism when we were much poorer than today,
and poverty can sharpen the acquisitive appetite.

A path-toward-free threatens consumerism.  New means of distribution,
production, and promotion threaten consumerism.   

We pay with free Internet services with ads.  But they're not the old,
mass-propaganda ads: they're micro-targeted Google ads.  We're
witnessing catastrophe for admen and public relations.  

Andrew Keen says we pay for Free internet goods with our culture.  I
think he means that we're being culturally humiliated by our inability
to pay for music and literature.  But it could also be argued that,
under consumerism, massive ads ARE our real culture. They need to
blanket everybody, every surface, for consumerism to work.  Andrew's
beloved fine arts are some kind of alien imposition.   

Internet-purchases are not old-style consumerism, because they differ
in scary ways.   They're super-fast.  You can be a dog and no one
knows.  Stuff is shipped from remote locations.  The structure of
markets changes.  Those Amazon suggestions: "guys like you buy stuff
like this."  That's not the same as my going to the department store
and seeing what my boss buys when he goes shopping, so that I know what
brown shoes to aspire to.

Long tail markets appear.  Foreign stuff appears.  I can live in
Tokyo, be Japanese, and dress entirely in Italian clothes if I like. 
The semiotic pressure to keep up with the Joneses is missing.  I don't
even talk the Joneses now.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #162 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:51
    
Local consumer communities are replaced with interest-groups, who
compare notes online.  No more department stores: we don't want to mess
with the annoying overhead of other departments, any more than we want
to buy newspapers that talk too much about stuff that bores us. 
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #163 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 06:56
    
The Wal-Mart superlogistical big box store is the tunnel to China.

Sino-Globalization is a big deal, because it represents a global
material culture without American antecedents.  David Edgerton talks
about this in his book SHOCK OF THE OLD, which is about the modernity
of Third World material culture.  Sino-Global is not old-fashioned or
backward; its more modern than American goods.  Sino-Global means
aluminum cookware, plastic baskets,  ultra-cheap wristwatches,
clothing, footgear, bicycles, electronics, electrical fixtures,
tableware.  Flimsy-lloking but not actually all that flimsy.  By
historical standards, by modern standards in most centers of mass
population today, Sino-Global means a very high level of material
culture.  It doesn't look or act American, but you can furnish a
cubicle with Sino-Global stuff and do most any high-paying job. You can
get a college education.

"Disneyla," Cory Doctorow calls it. Ninety-percent functional.  It's
wide and deep.  It goes from  mass production in Shenzhen through
forgeries, knockoffs, all kinds of evasions of the IP structures that
the West struggles to impose.   All kinds of lower class favela debris.
 There are oceans of it. 
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #164 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:00
    
"Just Good Enough." When markets are overserved, people move toward
cheaper, disruptive goods.  Just Good Enough can be plenty food enough,
in beta software and elsewhere.

 Poor people wear fine clothes today, by historical standards.  Nobody
patches clothes, they're too cheap to patch.  Nobody wears real rags. 
Even the wartorn Congo is buried in bales of used Western clothing. 
You have to work at it to wear rags.

Look at this Muji ad.  The implications of this Muji "message" are
plenty weird.  Muj is not a humble, low-end retailer.  Muji is very
high-end, it's got some of the most gifted designers in the world.

http://www.muji.com/message/
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #165 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:03
    
Where do you PUT the stuff?  What function does it serve?

Consumer homes used to be storage depots on the railway from the
Montgomery Ward wish book. You got stuff because you needed it on hand,
you weren't sure you could have it again.   There is less needed in a
home today.  Homes were major centers of material production once.  
Kitchens cooked hundreds of meals from scratch,  sewing rooms produced
the family's clothing, garages fixed cars at home, workshops made
furniture, daughter sought social accomplishments and had a piano,
there was a conservatory, a trousseau, a hope chest. A smokehouse
maybe, a garden shed.

Somebody made and sold all that clutter.  They were objects, not
services.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #166 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:06
    
Divorce rates are a boon to the cheap goods at IKEA.  Families are
smaller. More people live alone. The population is aging and will never
be young again. Consumerism is adjusting to this, but it takes a toll.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #167 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:14
    
There's a loss of middle class aspiration. People no longer know what
kind of material culture they are aspiring to.  They are precarious,
they are a mobile symbolic analysis class, they are creatives, they are
clerks.    

"How is the Internet changing the way you think?" 

http://www.edge.org/q2010/q10_index.html

*Okay, Brockman's cadre are a pretty select group -- scientists,
hippie visionaries and culture gurus -- but that's an interesting set
of testaments.  None of them say that the Internet made them more
prosperous, that it helped them to settle down, that they feel better
about their future thanks to the Internet.

 Nobody says that the Internet gave them a sense of safe, fatherly,
middle-class things to do with a three year old.  It's great for
thinking about tons of weird crap, and it's rather bad for business and
governance, the Internet.

And for consumerism?  Nobody pays on the Internet.  They hate paying. 
They might mess with e-commerce for convenience sake, but give them
their head and they undercut, they conspire, they disintermediate, they
eBay and they Craigslist, they copy, they pirate, they cut and paste. 
Those are not consumer values.  Real consumers have brand loyalty. 
They're proud to pay because it shows how far they've come from
poverty, from precarity.  They want the car with fins.  They
specifically want the fins.

Internet people want to swap the behind-the-scenes story about the
fins, which is by no means the same impulse.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #168 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:17
    
Theres already SO MUCH STUFF!  Just a lot of STUFF.  There's only so
much stuff to transform into material goods on the crust of the planet!
  The clutter's all over the place.  Millions of old bldgs...  Cuban
cars half a century old and still puttering...  Moderns in
formerly-Communist countries are wandering around in the ruins of an
alien civilation.  New York highrises are old, old.   UNESCO heritage
centers cover huge swathes of Italy: you can't swing a cat without
hitting a protected Baroque cathedral.

So much stuff, unconsumed but irremovable...   Gothic High Tech.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #169 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:22
    
The moguls are not helping matters.  They might as well be an alien
species.  The elite are supposed to pioneer trickle-down middle-class
goods.  That's not working.

Today's ultra-wealthy are into oddities private space flight, private
jets, superyachts, pet Senators, and collecting old media. How many
middle-class people are going to ever own a pet Senator?

The ultra-wealthy are into the immaterial: not gold ingots, not
washing machines,  but positions as board of directors, stock options,
political sway. 

But those Dubai apts are likely to get pretty lonely, also not very
socially or culturally productive, when there are way too many finance
vampires and not enough rosy-cheeked Bella Snows.  The ultrarich don't
produce enough to stimulate a mass consumer economy for private space
rockets. 

You can't spend two million dollars on a pair of socks.  You might be
a Medici, but you can't be a Sears and Roebuck.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #170 of 223: Bruce Sterling (bruces) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:27
    
I'm almost done now.  I could go on -- I plan to, but why belabor the
point?  

This is it, a high point of consumerism as a culture: Norman
Rockwell's "Freedom from Want."

http://www.normanrockwellvt.com/NewsletterIssues/FreedomfromWant.htm

*Look at those people.  That's how far we've drifted from consumerism.
 Look at their pure, visceral satisfaction at Grandma's enormous
glazed turkey.  That turkey is a social, political and familial good in
and of itself. Its a political message, a civil right, even.  "We're
not starving.  Not here in American."

Well, not one of them is obese, either.  They all look the same.
Nobody's married to a Nigerian.  Nobody's dressed like an Italian. 
None of them is big on Facebook.  None of them is flying to Brussels
tomorrow.  None of them bought a car by searching values on an online
site.  None of them earns a living with a laptop.  They never saw a
cellphone in their lives.

*They're a real 20th century culture, a powerful and attractive one,
but this isn't the 20th century.
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #171 of 223: Eric Gower (gower) Wed 13 Jan 10 07:46
    
(standing ovation -- don't ever stop, Bruce)
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #172 of 223: Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 13 Jan 10 08:23
    
Your best State of the World rant yet, BruceS!  You're a gentleman and
a scholar...and I feel like I'm leaving the house today as a
counter-consumerist wrangler out to tackle a new age...


...bowl of Kellogg's first, then fill those eBay orders with cheap
goods from China as I look out at the warm winter western Washington
drizzle that threatens to undermine my next door neighbor's Winter
Olympics, where it's so tough to consume tickets because eCorporate
sponsors you never heard of buy them up in big blocks, (then never have
anyone attend).
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #173 of 223: Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 13 Jan 10 11:10
    
Wow!  Nice, Bruce.

and from offsite reader Stefan Jones:

WOOO! bruces on a roll!

You should turn that into a *book* man. "Consuming Things."

* * *

Two contradictory things about me:

* I have a six figure salary.

* I'm a garbage picker.

Big time garbage picker. Furniture, housewares, electronics. What I
can't use, I clean up and bring to Goodwill. (More on that later.)

I live around the corner from an Intel plant. Lots of techies in my
apartment complex. When they get laid off or start having kids, they
move out and dump their computer stuff in the bin. Some of these folks
are serial upgraders. I pull two or three really good computers out of
the trash each year. Last season's model, a dual core instead of the
quad core you need to play Halo 4 so out it goes.  I fix them up and
give them to friends or co-workers.

They throw away really good cookware too. Copper bottomed stainless
steel stuff. A little bleach and scrubbing and they're as good as new.
I really love cooking with this stuff, I can really appreciate the way
it works and dig why foodies go for the high end, but oddly *I don't
know where this stuff comes from.* I'm a Target and Costco kind of
shopper, when I buy new. They sell "kitchen in a box" sets there; nice
and affordable but the non-stick coating wears off after a few years
and out it goes.

Goodwill Industries of Oregon is a wonderful outfit. They work the
other side of the Big Box distribution cycle. Their stores aren't
shabby storefronts. They gut them and refit them and have a look and
floorplan near as standardized as Wal-Mart. All bright and well
organized and non-depressing. The stuff has a color coded date tag.
When it's 2 weeks old it goes to half price, then it goes to the Thrift
Outlet where it is sold by the pound, then what isn't sold there goes
to the pulping plant, recycling center, or (in the case of clothing) a
place that compresses it into bales for sale in the developing world.
They also have drive-through donation centers, where friendly folks
empty your SUV of detritus and give you a tax receipt.

Keep on that roll

Stefan
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #174 of 223: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 13 Jan 10 11:20
    
That latest Brockman "World Question Center" aggregate of writings
looks pretty rich. One thing I'm getting from that and from your rant:
we're in transition to something we can't quite see yet, and we're
completely unsettled. All we have is questions. It's like we've climbed
halfway up a mountain, and there's no way to go back, but we're not
sure we can scale the peak, either. So we're talking about it, trying
to figure it out.

Maybe we all turn inward, start realizing the Bodhisattva ideal on a
massive scale.

For some reason, this makes me think of a song...

Jenny said when she was just five years old
There was nothing happening at all
Every time she puts on a radio
There was a nothin' goin' down at all, not at all
Then one fine mornin' she puts on a new york station
You know, she couldn't believe what she heard at all
She started dancin' to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
And dance to a rock 'n' roll station

Jenny said when she was just by five years old
You know parents gonna be the death of us all
Two tv sets and two cadillac cars -
Well you know it ain't gonna help me at all
Then one fine mornin' she turns on a new york station
She doesn't believe what she hears at all
Ooh, she started dancin' to that fine fine music
You know her life is saved by rock 'n' roll,
Despite all the computations
You could just dance to a rock 'n' roll station

And baby it was allright
And it was all right
Hey it was all right....
  
inkwell.vue.373 : Bruce Sterling: State of the World 2010
permalink #175 of 223: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Wed 13 Jan 10 22:06
    
So the future is talking about stuff and taking photographs of it, but
hardly ever actually buying it?  Museums and libraries should do well.
Or maybe furnished apartments.

I wonder about moving companies and storage units. And a video I once
saw about the companies that remove all the abandoned furniture from
foreclosed abandoned houses. People lived there and purchased all that
stuff. They could have packed up the stuff and brought it with them, if
they thought it was worth the hassle, but they didn't. What was once
worth actually spending money on is no longer worth even the bother of
moving.

For me, the limiting factor on buying new stuff is responsibly
disposing of the old. We need a reverse Amazon.
  

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