High Tech Ideology: Consumption Studies Part 9

From all the developmental work on Consumption Studies, I now turn to an illustrative example of bricolage that I wrote seven years ago, near the very apex of the dot com boom, about high technology consumption. This work has never been published before.


Ever-increasing consumption of high technology is currently a privileged practice within many important cultural streams, such as Western business, government and academia (Venkatesh et al. 1997). Derived from the Greek words for crafty art, “techne”, and word or discourse, “logos”, technology itself means, literally, the realized word, the artifice from discourse, the materialization of thought science through active, crafty artisanship.

Traditionally, the control of fire, invention of agriculture, speech and the alphabet stand as awesome human technological achievements (Marvin 1988). However, the term technology, particularly its elevated “high” variant as we have come to know it in the past three decades or so, has been appropriated largely by information and telecommunications industries.

Situated in this milieu of networked infotech as high technology, the illustrative work of bricolage offered in this bloggy demo centers on the particular contexts embodying its consumption meanings and practices (see also Mick and Fournier 1998; Venkatesh 1996, 1998a, 1998b; Venkatesh et al. 1997). This investigation takes as its starting point a phenomenological instant, a moment of connection. This moment linked a technocentric magazine ad and a man, an infotech commercial and a reader, a message and a target in a bond of consumption meaning that encircled the present in Western cultural history. Tacking back and forth between the semiotic, intertextual, intersubjective subtexts of the advertisement and the subjective introspection, social history and situation of the reader-writer-researcher, my very personal little investigation inserts critical commentary that seeks to peel back and expose the fleshy, sheltered, and oft-hidden ideological underbelly of high technology.

The advertisement is presented in Figure 1. How I love this ad. It appeared on the inside back cover of the April 13, 1998 issue of BusinessWeek magazine (a McGraw-Hill publication with wide circulation). A stark black and white ad, it was part of a campaign of similarly dramatic ads for Sun Microsystems, one of the industry’s largest purveyors of workstations and networking software and, with its JavaTM and JiniTM technologies, a major rival and frequent challenged of mega-gorilla industry monolith Microsoft. Sun has long cultivated a digital frontier cowboy brand image of freedom and rebelliousness based upon the unconventional uses of networked computing. As Business Week (1999, p. 37) reported, “For years, Sun Microsystems Inc. Chief Executive Scott G. McNealy has been one of high tech’s most vocal rebels against the digital world order set up by software king Microsoft Corp.”

The power struggles can be read from the emphasis on cyberspace (Microsoft was a late entrant) and networked computers (its forté, rather than Microsoft’s) in Sun’s advertisement (see Figure 3). The ad’s huge, bold, upper-case, ragged font headline declares “CYBER-SPACE: THE FINAL FRONTIER,” as if the words issued from a gigantic typewriter. The tiny text positioned at the ad’s bottom then reads:
The agricultural age transformed business. The industrial age revolutionized business. The networked age? It’s reinventing business. Not so much with computers. But with they ways they work together. (It’s been our frontier for the past 16 years.) With out JavaTM technologies, we’re helping companies leverage the Internet, intranet and extranet to launch their enterprises in completely new directions. Networked age? Try golden age. THE NETWORK IS THE COMPUTER.TM

The ad’s reader, this article’s researcher and writer, shares a range of subjective contexts that served to focus attention on the advertisement. First was the prosaic moment of exposure, in which I, as subscriber and member of the magazine’s target group of business professionals, actively browsed. Second was the topic matter of technology that, as an instructor of techophiles, and owner and maintainer of five personal computers, is always interesting. Most important, and clearly reflective of my own subjective interests, was the linkage of techoscience and science fiction.

In the combination of science fiction (SF) author William Gibson’s neuromantic (or should that be “neo-romantic”) term “cyberspace” and “the final frontier” there was overt reference to SF-one of my passions-connecting it with technological meanings. In fact, this exact headline had served previously as a heading in my SF-inspired thesis dissertation (on p. 64), published in July 1997. Clearly, there was resonance -if not Jungian synchronicity -at work here. It offered a chance to explore deeper what I believed to be an important and often overlooked topic. Acting as a “deliberate introspectionist,” here, my choice of research topic reveals some of the inescapably subjective introspection that, as Levy (1997) documents, inform our research choices.

In order to pursue these meanings in an illustrative manner, this exemplar combines:

  • (1) a textual and historical analysis of the intersubjective system of consumption meanings suggested by the intertextual referents of this advertisement,
  • (2) an introspective analysis of the reception and personal connection of these meanings in one target’s lived experiences, and
  • (3) a critical theoretic perspective that examines some of the social and ecological limitations of these consumption meanings as consumerist ideology.

The illustration thus coordinates four doctrine, methods or schools of thought:

  1. textual or symbolic interpretation and analysis (e.g., Arnold and Fischer 1994, Mick 1986, Stern 1989, Scott 1994),
  2. historical research (e.g., Smith and Lux 1993)
  3. introspection (e.g., Gould 1991, Holbrook 1995), and
  4. critical theory/green criticism (e.g., Hetrick and Lozada 1994, Ozanne and Murray 1991, Ross 1991).

In so doing, it attempts to utilize some of the distinct strengths of each method -the symbolic richness and rhetorical strength of textual analysis, the sociocultural denaturing of historical research, the verisimilitude and phenomenological depth of introspection, the ‘fanged’ (Hetrick and Lozada 1994) conscience of critical theory.


In personally using the Sun Microsystems ad to reflect upon my own semantic consumption network, I wish to start this exploration using the same socially situated, reflective narrative stance adopted by Gould (1991), Holbrook (1995) and Brown (1995). It is important to note explicitly and describe my subjective contexts -to situate my story historically, geo-politically, personally and socially.

Situated knowledges are about membership in communities, they promise a “view from somewhere” rather than a splitting of subject and object (Haraway 1988). Providing an important bridge, they link the objectivity of social categories to the subjectivity of my own perceptions.

As a thirtysomething assistant professor, member of a community of scholars at an American university, I believe myself to have a lot of utility, and a fair share of fetishistic pleasure, tied into my consumption of high technology. This morning, September 9 1999, as I do almost every morning, I walk into my office and the first thing I do after propping my door open is to boot up my Dell Optiplex Gx1 computer, flick on my Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 6P, ScanJet 5000C, and 21″ Sony Trinitron monitor, place my 3Com Palm III into its cradle and press the “hotsynch” button. With a bit of pride I reflect that these are the tools of people of means, people “on the go.” After feeling comfortable familiarity at the preschool rainbow colors of the Windows startup screen (as if boundless, Where do I want to go today?), I load up some technopop MP3 files, “go” into Eudora and check my messages, seeing if anyone today has responded to my web-page. (Yes, I’m struck by how antiquated all this then au currant technobrand talk is…funny, ain’t it…but it also serves as part of the lesson now..like reading an old newspaper.)

Is technology a frontier? Is it a harbinger of a golden age? As an aspect of my own lived experience, high technology consumption has become a supramundane extension of my ears and eyes.

For my generation at least, high technology as a consumption concept has been largely naturalized. But because its specifics change so rapidly, it retains the sheen of the ever-new. Screensize and clarity and thickness, beta versions, RAM and hard drive size, acronym knowledge, skill at web-page design, distance learning development and digital presentation, all become daily and almost phallic modalities of my own tale-spinning (or tail-chasing?) worlds of competition and self-elevation.

The rapidity of technological change and ubiquitous reminders of its current social importance make it fashionable and edgy, frightening in a sense (as when a format changes, and all your files -and knowledge!-of one type suddenly become threatened with obsolescence). That makes technology feel frontierlike.

Technophilic pursuits act as my instruments, symbolic means to the egoistic end of heightened social stature. Discoursing with students and peers, they become more than social markers. Statements starts to ring with overtones of prophetic inevitability, engaging revolutionary sphere of possible freedom, egalitarianism, social experimentation and exploration whose potential only neo-Luddites would deny or suppress. With its identity intimations of young, tough, hackery relentlessness and the quest for increasing equality and freedom, who wouldn’t want to be the (secret) change agent, blazing a new path through the frontier?

Yet, reflecting on the origins of these techno-consumption meanings, I can’t help but be drawn backward -not forward-in time. I clearly remember myself at age fourteen, head and heart saturated with science fiction daydreams, face pressed up against the retail glass of the new computer-kit store that was only doors down from my favorite sci-fi bookstore on Queen Street West in blessed Toronto.

I was peering with purest unadulterated (literally) covetousness at the cassette-tape driven Commodore Vic-20 when it was the first and last word in home computing power. I was a young, white, urban, lower-middle class male just itching, like all of my young, white, urban friends, to get my hands on this t(echnol)o(g)y.

It was still over a decade later that technology would garner associations of productivity, proficiency, professionalism, as business put its shoulder behind information technology and, between 1960 and 1995, invested over four trillion dollars in it. Only later that IT would attain the strange glow of a heralded acronym. At that point, in the late 1970s, all we knew was that these new screened things -with their Asteroids and Space Invaders-screamed sci-fi. They were new, cool, and they were for us. We were bored and desperately seeking our futures and these strange white boxes stunk unmistakably of inspiration.

The Reading will continue tomorrow….

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