This month the 22nd Winter Olympic Games began in Sochi, Russia. The spectacle of the event has captivated persons from around the world to tune into watch their favorite sport or favorite athletes. Russia spent over $50 billion to prepare for the Olympics by building hotels, roads, stadiums, and to bring in artificial snow into the Southern resort town. The Sochi Olympics are the first mega-sporting event to occur this year, but will likely be trumped by the upcoming World Cup in Brazil over the summer. Brazil’s price tag for hosting the World Cup is considerable less at around $9 billion dollars. Nonetheless, the cost of both of these events and the emphasis by the respective countries to show the world the capabilities of their nation reveal the increasing globalization of these world sporting events. The Olympics and the World Cup are two global sports spectacles that have considerable cultural and economic ramifications, and are a product of intense politicking to bring the events to one’s national home.
I’ve watched mass gatherings with great interest while living in Washington D.C. From Obama’s election night and inauguration to various marches, and, of course, Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart’s rallies to restore “honor” and “sanity,” respectively. These last two, both organized by cable television personalities, brought massive amounts of people to the National Mall, so many people that these rallies might be telling us something about our current moment in American political discourse and participation. Let me describe yesterday’s Rally to Restore Sanity and argue that the politics of irony on display are more than “mere spectacle,” but potentially quite powerful.
Left, White and Bigger than Beck
Like Beck’s rally, yesterday’s crowd was partisan and mostly white. It was far less diverse than Obama’s election night celebrations or his inauguration day, a point that deserves its own analysis. It was clear to anyone who attended both Beck and Stewart’s rallies that the latter brought the larger crowd. Current estimates have yesterday’s crowd at around 215,000 people (about 2.5 times Beck’s 87,000). And, of course, Stewart’s attendees were largely on the political left.
A Postmodern Event
If you have seen any images from the event [here are some photos I took], you know that it was intended to be humorous and entertaining. Yes, there was Stewart and Colbert on stage, their shtick was good as always, but more importantly there were the many hilarious signs and costumes created by the attendees. People watching gets no better than this. The rally was indeed a site for creativity and expression. There was a somewhat incoherent “pastiche” of images presented. If there was a central theme, perhaps it was “irony” -you know, in that weird way we use it to mean “sarcastic.” This event had all the hallmarks of a more postmodern space for possibilities of all kinds, be they intellectual, artistic, humorous, etc, than just a space for political rhetoric.
I’ve written many posts on this blog about the implosion of the spheres of production and consumption indicating the rise of prosumption. This trend has exploded online with the rise of user-generated content. We both produce and consume the content on Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube and so on. And it is from this lens that I describe Apple’s latest creation announced yesterday: the iPad. The observation I want to make is that the iPad is not indicative of prosumption, but rather places a wedge between production and consumption.
From the perspective of the user the iPad is made for consuming content. While future apps might focus on the production of content, the very construction of the device dissuades these activities. Not ideal for typing, and most notably missing a camera, the device is limited in the ways in which users create content. Further, the device, much like Apple’s other devices, is far less customizable than the netbooks Apple is attempting to displace (which often use the endlessly customizable Linux OS).
Instead, the iPad is focused on an enhanced passive consumption experience (and advertised as such, opposed to their earlier focus: can’t resist). Unlike netbooks, the iPad is primarily an entertainment device. Instead of giving users new ways to produce media content, the focus is on making more spectacular and profitable the experience of consuming old media content -music and movies via the iTunes store, books via the new iBookstore and news via Apple’s partnership with the New York Times.
Thus, the story of the iPad’s first 24hours, for me, is the degree to which the tasks of producing and consuming content have been again split into two camps. The few produce it -flashy, glittering and spectacular- and the many consume it as experience. And, of course, for a price.
Does this serve as a rebuttal to an argument that the trend towards the merging of the spheres of production and consumption into prosumption is inevitable? Or is prosumption indeed the trend for a future Apple seems not to grasp? Or will the applications developed for the device overcome its limitations? ~nathan
Read More: Times Topics: the iPad
By: George Ritzer
Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland
A decade ago I wrote a book dealing with what I called the “cathedrals of consumption”. These are consumption settings that had, in the main, come into existence in the United States in the post-WWII era. Of particular interest were the most grandiose of these consumption settings including major indoor shopping malls, mega-malls (e.g. Mall of America), theme parks (especially Disneyland and Disney World), cruise ships, and above all the themed casino-hotels that came to dominate the Las Vegas Strip. In the last several decades these cathedrals of consumption became increasingly ubiquitous and predominant not only throughout the United States, but also globally. This is particularly clear in and around the booming economies of China and the Arabian Peninsula, but similar developments are taking place in many other places in the world (e.g. Singapore, Philippines, etc.). Dubai began creating its three Palm Islands to be dominated by mega-hotels like the Atlantis (a clone of a hotel of the same name in the Bahamas), the first of nearly a dozen hotel-condominiums to be built on Palm Jumeirah, the first of the islands to be completed. Dubai will also have many shopping malls associated with this development; there is, as yet, no plan, to build a Disneyland there.
This essay is devoted to the fate of the cathedrals of consumption globally in the “Great Recession” that began in late 2007. It is difficult to feel as much sympathy for the plight of hyperconsumers and the grand cathedrals of consumption as, for example, those who have lost their jobs and seen their pension funds decline precipitously. Nonetheless, there is an important story to be told here and it is one that will have negative implications for large numbers of people, including more sympathetic figures such as those throughout the world who are losing, and will lose, their jobs (in construction, as dealers, as hotel workers, etc.) associated in various ways with hyperconsumption and the cathedrals of consumption.
The grand narrative here involves a series of changes in consumption that began mainly in the United States after the Second World War and gained increasing momentum over the next 60-plus years. Over this period of time these changes became increasingly global. When the window of opportunity for these developments slammed shut beginning in late 2007, many projects were stopped in their tracks and the trend toward increasing hyperconsumption and ever more, and more spectacular, cathedrals of consumption was aborted. In terms of the cathedrals of consumption, while this was true of some ongoing projects in the U.S., it is especially true in other places in the world which are being especially hard hit by the current recession. The cathedrals of consumption that seemed to so many to be a bright symbol of the future of the global economy in general, and consumption more particularly, now increasingly seem like dinosaurs, relics from a previous epoch that is not likely to return, at least in anything approaching the form it reached in the first decade of the 21st century.
In the past week considerable debate has emerged over the birth of a set of octuplets to a California woman. Controversy has surrounded both the doctors who facilitated the births as well as the mother herself, who is single, unemployed, and has six other children. The attention that is being paid to this family by both the media and ordinary people who are eager to share their opinions on fertility treatments and parental responsibility has created nothing short of spectacle. In his work on media, culture, and spectacles, Douglas Kellner suggests that popular media spectacles often tell us a great deal about the values, experiences, and conflicts of our times. From this perspective, the octuplet birth may cast a light on such issues as the role of biotechnology in pregnancy and childbirth, medical ethics, and the role of the state in regulating the clinics and doctors who facilitate multiple births. The hostility that has been directed toward the mother of fourteen also suggests contemporary notions about what constitutes “appropriate” parenting. At the same time, however, the woman has been praised by some for her decision not to terminate her pregnancy. We may compare the octuplet birth spectacle, then, to a microscope through which we can take a closer look at the issues, conflicts, and problems that are present in contemporary society, but not always visible to the naked eye
Less Credit/Less Consumption
Consumption is down. While this might be a momentary hiccup, it could very well be the case that Western societies will have to “reset” and pull back on consumption levels for a long time to come. Much of the consumption literature has pointed to Western conspicuous and hyper-consumption as an integral ethic of modern society. We have been consuming well beyond our means by relying on debt to fuel our consumer economy, an unsustainable habit as credit markets have dried up. So what does it mean to pull back on consumerism, something, arguably, so central to our society? Does this leave a void? If so, what fills this void?
A Civic-Centered Spectacle?
One void that seems appropriate to discuss is that of the spectacle. The (increasingly distant) era of hyper-consumption was a time of the consumer spectacle (e.g., mega-malls, Las Vegas, etc), and when consumption is down we might expect to see different sorts of spectacles. Spectacles built around more modest, live-within-your-means activities. The green movement is, arguably, a spectacle in this way. Perhaps a more vivid example is the Obama campaign, inauguration, and early-presidency. Truly a spectacle. Has civic engagement, to some degree, replaced consumption in the realm of a shared ethos (as Benjamin Barber hopes)? Additionally, has civic engagement, to some degree, replaced corporate consumption as the site of the spectacle?
The Commodification of Everything
Of course, the picture may be less rosey than this. Corporate commodification and it’s hold on the Western spirit of consumption (as well as it’s near-monopoly of the spectacle) will not fall easily. In addition to generating their own spectacles, we might also see in this economic and consumptive downturn corporations commodify the very non- or anti-commercial spectacles mentioned previously (i.e., the green movement and Obama-style civic engagement). We are seeing corporations use the green movement to sell products -to the extent that some are questioning the greenness of the movement in the first place. On the Obama front, and this was very apparent on Inauguration Day in DC, Pepsi, Ikea and others have commodified the idea of Obama’s campaign. In the hyperlinks to the Pepsi and Ikea campaigns, as well as with the pictures above, we see that they are not just using his image or name to sell their products, but the very ethos of the campaign, such as “hope” or “change” (in the image above, note Pepsi’s word choice, font and even logo redesign). In this way, while Obama might represent a turn away from consumption towards civic engagement (he called for this, at least) and a turn away from consumer products as the site of the spectacle, this spectacle is still brought into the realm of the corporate. In an economy where branding is still important, ‘hope’ is ultimately used to sell soda. ~nathan
Read More: Consumers are Saving More and Spending Less
Outlines of a Critical Sociology of Consumption: Beyond Moralism and Celebration