Sunday, 14 August 2011

Robots, Robots, Robots.


OBSERVING the panorama from the top-deck of a shopping mall's multi-story car-park, we look down on the other open-air car-park below, and we start noticing things. The lines of cars queueing to get in through the turnpike ticket-machines; those cars, once in, orbiting the place, scuttling about in search of their own paint- and kerbstone-delineated rented parking space; once parked up, the occupants of the vehicles, disgored from their conveyances, forming denser and more dense desire lines focused upon the mall's entrance, moving inexorably towards the apotheosis of consumption. Then, desires having been discharged inside the building, they line up and queue again at the payment machine which grants passport to exit once more through turnpike to public street beyond.

It is too too tempting to draw an analogy. Of what is this behaviour reminiscent? At first the obvious one: Insects - ants in their formicary, termites in their tower, bees in their hive. But no, that's not right; it doesn't quite satisfy - it's not really what the scene reminded us of. For while those insects show behaviours which appear automatic, those behaviours are collective and endowed with agency. By individual insect actions coming together and summed as a whole, the insect community is served in its totality: stuff gets done; things get built; the next generation is nurtured; the community moves forward. Contrastingly, it is agency which is lacking in the actions of the shoppers at the mall. While the shoppers clearly believe they are exercising their freedom of consumer choice as empowered and individualistic shoppers, all it takes is for us to view their behaviour from an elevation of about 25 metres for those illusions to melt away like springtime snow.

UK Readers of a certain age will remember the young children's BBC TV show Play School. At one point in every programme, we were invited to go "through the window" to observe an often repetitive interlude-type scene (which we can now recognise as an early form of ambient video). A favourite theme was automation: the factory scene; the bottling plant; the cannery. And this is what we were most reminded of as we studied the car-park scene playing out below us; a large compound machine which processes raw materials. Our paradigm shift came when we realised that it is the shoppers themselves which comprise the raw materials.

We used to refer to consumer goods (entertainment systems, kitchen appliances, motorcars and the like) as 'durables' or 'durable goods' which would yield their value in utility to the consumer over an extended period of time lasting several years. We would shop out of necessity only; "I need a new pair of shoes" was said out of genuine need, not out of a whim provoked by advertising, aspiration, peer-pressure or the urgent urgings of variable inconstant fashion. Now, through the agency of planned or perceived obsolescence and the provoked aspiration to move up through the artificial hierarchy of entry-level -> mid-range -> pro -> premium, we replace (always 'upgrade') our durables long before their true obsolescence. The hierarchy of possession chimes with (and to a great extent replaces) our social class system. Class/social mobility aspiration is subsumed into the possession upgrade cycle. Now, rather than our possessions providing value to us through their utility over time, they provide us with signifier value; we choose 'brand x' because it says 'y' about us through the signals it transmits to those who can read them (everyone who has similarly 'bought in'). Thus we can be relied upon to provide value (through reliably regular revenue) to the manufacturers of those possessions and the software which runs upon them (films, TV, books, music, apps, etc) for as long as we are advertising-engineered to remain brand-loyal. The arbitrary class system based upon birth is replaced by the seemingly egalitarian hierarchy of consumption. But this seeming egalitarianism hides something in plain sight, something which it takes only an effort of will to see - the will to see that this subversion of aspiration leads into a trap.

What were once 'durables' are now 'consumables', the upgrade cycle having effectively rendered the ownership of possessions merely short term leases towards planned obsolescence and inevitable upgrade. The subscription model embraces and guides consumers by flattery (amongst other tactics) towards a future on the upgrade path which is the aspirational roadmap to forever, with added functionality (a weasel word not necessarily meaning 'utility') being each milestone and the software/hardware nexus destination being kept forever just out of reach. Mobile phone teleco business models led the way to the 'free' provision of hardware in return for a monthly software subscription fee. We now see this model being rolled out for TV receivers, home and business computer systems, motor vehicles, domestic heating systems, business clothing and, no doubt, many other products and services which we're not aware of. The more the consumer pays every month, the quicker the upgrade through that artificial hierarchy to newer more functional and flashier hardware which the consumer is content to believe is a direct reflection of their place in the hierarchy. The consumer is content to believe this because just about everyone else does. It is this human tendency for groupthink which has transmuted our natural aspirations into a trap. This aspiration trap has, in turn, rendered us into the ultimate durable 'hardware' item on the market. The possessions we aspire to 'own' have been pre-selected for us for the effects they have on us. Our engineered desire for more and more-up-to-date possessions is the software which makes us run, makes us go; go to work every day, makes us submit; submit to the whims of our bosses and their bosses and their bosses' bosses and the far-off unseen shareholders who give them their orders. Our brand-loyalty contract is negotiable and we and our propensities (whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not) are traded amongst megacorps as their 'installed base'. 

We recognised in that simple observation of the operation of a shopping mall car park a bizarre inversion of the manufacturing process which created the value which gave western civilisation its 150 year hegemony: where once people operated machines to create value from raw materials on behalf of nearby (or, at most, national) paternalistic mill-owners - now machines operate people to extract the value of their human labour on behalf of far-off unseen and indifferent international shareholders. The advanced car-park wrangler machines of shopping malls are examples of integrated cybernetic systems processing variable inputs and operating autonomously - in other words they are true robots. Many other and more pervasive autonomous cybernetic systems now exist to service the consumer economy - from the credit card billing system which offers 'loyalty points' to the number-plate recognition system which bills car-parking or congestion charge through that same credit card system; from adaptive phase traffic lights to Amazon's recommendation system - these systems might appear to offer us a certain convenient utility, a certain freedom in service of consumer choice, but in fact they erode our agency with every iteration of their ever-closer integration, which will continue unchecked and accelerate 'for your convenience and safety'.

Latter-day consumerism is a vast cybernetic compound machine which processes raw materials. But the horror we feel when we realise that the feedstock of that machine is composed of human beings - corralled and fed to the machine by robots for the benefit of far-off concentrations of wealth to which we can never truly hope to aspire - might make us look back upon those old Play School ambient videos as being a form of training, a form of indoctrination, of conditioning. We were made to look at repetitive hypnotic films of raw materials being processed by machines, and we subliminally assimilated the message that we were to be the raw materials, and now the machines can operate and consume us as they will; cybernetic agents of an increasingly exclusive and hidden coterie of controllers with their hands on the levers of control, the levers of power.

Today, the robots are everywhere, we cannot see who controls them, we do not know their names, we didn't notice the ascendancy of their hegemony, and so pervasive are their networks that they will not now easily be dismantled. Breaking our own conditioning is the only the first necessary step.


1 comment:

Peter Burnett said...

Dark times... and here in the blogosphere, things are darker than elsewhere... cause here, the product being sold is us... ourselves. Our profiles and that of other consumers are being sold to advertisers, cause our hits and clicks and likes and comments make them rich, rich, rich.

Dada now!