The increasing centrality of the Internet in our daily lives has precipitated a spate of theorizing about how we – as humans and as a society – are changing (or not) due to the constant technological mediation of our most basic interactions and activities. Let’s face it: This sort of theorizing is populated mostly by men of considerable privilege (with some very notable exceptions). A cynic might hold that the problems concerning human techno-social interactions are relatively insignificant compared to more pressing issues of race, class, gender, age, etc. One cannot but be sympathetic to such charges.
However, I would posit that a complicated set of processes are at work in causing many to view theory surrounding the Internet and its ever-expanding litany of technical terms (e.g., Web 2.0, prosumption, produsage, playbor, or sousveillance) as largely irrelevant to the salient social issues of our day: 1.) The theorists of the Web, tending to work from a position of privilege, perhaps, simply lack awareness of feminist and other situated discourses, thus failing to acknowledge their relevance. 2.) Privilege may also account for a willingness to be satisfied by grand theoretical projects that produce political objectives couched in inaccessible language, too impractical to be actionable, altogether irrelevant, or simply nonexistent. 3.) Disciplinary specialization is such that the theorists from Marxian, post-structuralist, and/or science and technology studies traditions who are studying similar phenomena may not be in dialogue with one another. (more…)
President Obama recently gave a eulogy for the legendary news anchor, Walter Cronkite, on which occasion, he delivered the nation this message:
We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. [...] Naturally, we find ourselves wondering how he would have covered the monumental stories of our time. In an era where the news that city hall is on fire can sweep around the world at the speed of the Internet, would he still have called to double-check? Would he have been able to cut through the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites to shine the bright light on substance? Would he still offer the perspective that we value? Would he have been able to remain a singular figure in an age of dwindling attention spans and omnipresent media?
The president waxed romantically about the old media and spoke with the sort fondness that one expects at the funeral of an old friend (or cherished institution). He was hopeful about the future of conventional media. But, eulogies are a post-mortum affair. And, for all the president’s accolades, “the murky noise of the blogs and the tweets and the sound bites” appear to have won the day.
In fact, these days, one can hardly avoid stories about the death of print media. Last December, the Chicago Tribune filed for bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter, Michael Hirschorn warned that “End Times” might be drawing near for the America’s paper of record. A recent article reports that the crisis is spreading to other forms of conventional reporting such as photojournalism. Michael Bowden has even gone so far as to announce that we have entered a “post-journalistic age.”
Teenagers, especially during the years of economic prosperity, consistently cast their consumer vote at various clothing retail stores. Marketers respond by relentlessly attempting to woo this coveted demographic. Various stores, even ones owned by the same corporation, create varying images in order to create a perspective of “cool”. “Coolness,” they believe, will induce the most profit. In schools around the country teenagers define themselves by what they are wearing. Brand names are signifiers that display identity. An individual’s social position, even if it is fictive, can be discerned from their dress. During tough economic times, however, it is possible that brand names lose some of their mysticism and clout or “cool”. The article referenced here discusses why certain retail companies continue to flourish while others begin to fall by the wayside. In this moment of economic turmoil various retail companies are striving to maintain a balance between brand image strength and price elasticity. The perspective is that if price is cut the brand image will suffer. A multitude of sociological concepts are useful while discussing these pertinent topics of American consumer culture. Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism, 150 years ago, elucidates the mysticism inherent in consumer products. Bourdieu’s Distinction, guided in part by symbolic violence, is a heuristic tool in understanding the symbolic boundaries and lines teenagers draw between themselves. Finally, a cultural sociology perspective can illuminate the meaning structures behind these consumer goods. By utilizing these perspectives consumers can more easily discern how marketers are attempting to balance economics and image to increase their products’ consumption. Thus, the consumer vote can be more informed and based on a veracity of knowledge as opposed to voracity toward commodities.
Terry Newholm and Deirdre Shaw on Ethical Consumption
“It takes tremendous courage to think for yourself and examine yourself, this Socratic imperative requires courage.” This quote is taken from the trailer of the second documentary from Astra Taylor and is spoken by Cornel West in the back of Taylor’s car. Taylor’s first film, Zizek, was a documentary in which the ‘intellectual rock star’, Slavoj Zizek, is shadowed on his lecture circuit. Taylor’s new film “Examined Life”, set to open in New York City, once again attempts to bring the erudite musings of social thinkers into the gaze of the public. This documentary includes interviews from eight of the world’s foremost and exemplary social commentators (Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Cornel West, and Slavoj Zizek). Though the film perhaps falsely conflates intellectualism with progressive political views, a thread in its fabric is Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach. This thesis states “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” The leitmotif of this film is Marx’s sentiment. Too often have our greatest thinkers been isolated and removed from the very individuals, collectives and environments they claim to elucidate. This film dislocates the philosopher from the safety of their ivory tower and places them in the trenches, or more specifically in the back of a car, on Fifth Avenue or in a waste disposal site. The interviews take place with the public sphere in mind. In order for the dialogue of these academics to escape the boundaries of their own limited spaces and circles, bombastic language is avoided and context is provided. If, what Marx suggested one hundred and sixty years ago should be the telos of academics, then films like these, even if they only dip their feet in the ocean, create a space in which social critique can effect change. Academics must be willing to take center stage touching ground ‘in the real’ and thus possibly transforming what it means to be a social analyst.
As the current economic crisis necessitates consumer frugality, various companies are attempting to reap additional revenue by innovative means of selling their brand. Internet cultures and networking sites are expanding at a meteoric rate providing a spate of opportunity for celebrities and companies to capitalize materially from this virtual medium. The company Virtual Greats, based out of California, is utilizing this opportunity by representing celebrities and brands that are being sold in virtual worlds. These sop virtual goods are sold at a fraction of the price compared to their ‘real’ material counterpart. As the co-founder of Virtual Greats astutely recognizes “a customer may not be able to afford the ‘real’ Louis Vuitton bag but [certainly] can afford the virtual one.” Virtual Greats acts as a buttress between brand companies, celebrities and virtual worlds like Gaia, Whyville and WeeWorld. These three virtual worlds are youth oriented and have witnessed, perhaps counter intuitive to the current economic climate, unabated sales. The perennial and fecund concept ‘commodity fetishism’ concretized by Marx 150 years ago is a useful tool in understanding this new level of consumption and identity formation. This fetishism refers to the mystical qualities products retain above and beyond their use value. Similar to the material world, certain virtual goods are kept sparse in order to increase their value. It is palpable that goods bartered in virtual worlds have limited, if any, use value, but its ‘fetishized’ value is potentially unlimited. Marx could not have augured the commodification of virtual worlds, however this new medium may be bringing commodity fetishism to its apogee. Avatars, as in the past, are no longer just icons with dialogic capabilities; they are self-expression identities. If we are to allow children unencumbered access to virtual worlds, and believe they provide fruitful growth experiences, we must beware the dangers of consumerism subjugating self-expression. Citizens of virtual worlds must remain wary of their colonization and hucksters selling them ersatz products, even if it creates distinction and temporarily fills a void.
Silvia Rief on a Critical Sociology of Consumption
It has recently been noted that there appears to be ‘an increasing sense of nostalgia for communism’ among many Germans. Although, this may in part be connected to wider global financial concerns, this on its own does not explain the attraction for many younger people. Indeed, it is suggested that many of these were born after Germany’s reunification, with no experience of the reality of living under communism.
In an effort to tackle these concerns, the East German School Project, based in Leipzig’s former Stasi building, has created classroom re-enactments to enable teenage pupils to gain some insight. Elke Urban, who takes the role of teacher Frau Müller, insists that some pupils ‘think that it [communism] was like living in a social paradise’. By stressing the totalitarian nature of the GDR regime, the project hopes to dispel some of the myths.
As part of this role-play, one student is pre-selected to be the dissident member of the group. Frighteningly, in an echo of the studies carried out by Milgram, Elliott and Zimbardo respectively, Ms. Urban has found that out of all the groups to visit the project, only one has refused to conform, with the others happy to participate in the dissident individual’s discrimination.
‘Does Antiregime Action under Communist Rule Affect Political Protest After the Fall?’
Given the vast changes that have occurred in the American economy in recent months, many families are left wondering about their financial security. Not excepted from these concerns are middle class teenagers, who are wondering whether or not their family’s economic problems are going to affect their ability to maintain their lifestyles. Many people argue that middle class American teenagers today are wasteful, selfish, and have no conception of budgeting and money management. Marx’s base/superstructure argument is salient when trying to understand teenagers’ difficulty adjusting to a more frugal lifestyle. Marx’s classic argument is that our material conditions, or relations of production, provide the base by which we understand both ourselves and the world around us. Teenagers who are trying to negotiate their families’ new spending habits are not self-centered by nature; rather, they have grown up in a social environment wherein superfluous spending seemed both normal and necessary. They must now make the adjustment to an environment in which that kind of lifestyle is no longer possible. We would do better to explain both the structural and personal implications of these economic changes to them carefully and relevantly instead of dismissing them as a generation of wastrels.
T. Kochuyt on the family economy
Classical sociologists, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, all suggested that as societies modernized, religion would begin to lose its influence on individuals and become more of a personal choice than a public mode of cohesion and control. This secularization thesis is exemplified by Dubai, a place where Islam has converged with contemporary material luxuries, consumerism, and new notions of religious identity. The secularization of Islam here is obvious as young and middle-aged Muslims, many of whom are expatriates from countries like Egypt and Jordan, negotiate new ways of experiencing and expressing their religion. After all, with both 24-hour Mosques and indoor ski slopes at their disposal, they seem to have no choice but to explore new interpretations of their Muslim identities.
S. Calderini on Islam and Diversity