Futuristic Frontiers: Consumption Studies, Part 10

Well, I’m here i Palo Alto for the MSI Conference “Service Innovation by Design.” We just has an amazing tour through the facilities of IDEO, which include an old, heavily-stickered hippie bus made up as a meeting room, and another one that looks like a descended white flying saucer. What an amazing place.

Over dinner last night with a friend who is a Stanford student, I called Palo Alto the heart of Silicon Valley. She corrected me. “Palo Alto,” she said, “is more like the loins of Silicon Valley.” Right she is. Evidence of the virile entrepreneurial power of Stanford–a very unique place and the setting for this very special MSI Conference–is spread far and wide (note to feminists: please pardon my very conscious male power metaphoring).

Back to blogging business. This passage continues the Consumption Studies bricolage methodology example, based upon a detailed reading of one technology ad (whose previous reading began here).

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Starkly linking cyberspace to frontiers, the Sun microsystems ad sets up a multileveled resonance to which I, as a self-in-culture, subjectively respond. To interrogate this response beyond the introspective requires examination of the contexts that link technology consumption and science fiction into a unified system of meaning.

These intersubjective contexts include cultural forced massed on social and industrial fields: the historical contexts of science fiction (for this ad puns both on Star Trek’s na├»ve techno-utopianist as well as-perhaps a bit unwittingly-on Gibson’s far more critical and dystopian SF) and the historical meaning systems employed by business, the mass media industries that cast and spread these systems and that also reflect wider Western and American cultural norms.

In the cultural context of science fiction, we can start with a pivotal text, 1984’s Neuromancer, a widely-read book that coined the term cyberspace and also underpinned much of the technological imagination driving the Internet. In it, science fiction author William Gibson not only attached a spatial metaphor to the imaginary medium of networked computing, but he also dubbed the maestros of the medium “cowboys.” These Net metaphors meshed perfectly with the rhetoric of the frontier that has become such a lasting component of American cultural character (a macro-social context), with its worship of freedom, free enterprise, and its utopian imaginary (Davis 1998).

In fact, digital pundit and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow later popularized the mythic image of cyberspace as digital frontier (ibid). As Venkatesh et al. (1997, p. 303) have also written, cyberspaces are “products of digital frontierism and science fiction.” Evident in over a half-century of Hollywood Westerns, frontier rhetoric had already indelibly inked itself into much of the popular culture of the twentieth century. In the hands of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who originally envisioned the series as “Wagon Train to the stars” (Whitfield and Roddenberry 1968), the Western met science fiction, and the long-gone geographical frontier was succeeded by an astronomical one: space, the final frontier.

Draping a business magazine ad for technology in the idiom of science fiction may at first sight seem a bit odd, puerile, even perverse. Yet it is actually part of a historical progression in which multiple influential cultural circuits -such as industry, including the mass media industry-have increasingly appropriated the futuristic and magical imagination of science fiction and affixed it to contemporary technological consumption.

Particularly when it comes to consideration of new high technology products, “you can’t open a newspaper or magazine without tripping over some reference to the show [Star Trek], its lingo, its credo” (Greenwald 1998, p. 13). The resulting metaphoric barrage of media linkages between science fiction and high technology-often fixating on the name value recognition of Star Trek- has approached the excruciating. For example, the headline of a USA Today cover story about two billionaires’ investment in an ultra high-tech communications satellite for Internet use punned mercilessly on the series title: “Where no billionaire has gone before: Tech stars’ Star-Trek project” (Maney 1996).

In one of an endless progression of overblown techno-prognostication stories, the Associated Press (1996b) opined that “by the year 2000, everyone will be wired into the Internet, use Star Trek-like gadgets and read newspapers from computers.” (Note: we might take these prophetic glimpses for granted now, if the category of “everyone” weren’t subject to some scrupuluous investigation).

Blurring the hyperreal boundaries further, another news story (The Associated Press 1996a) trumpeted Intel’s invention of “the fastest supercomputer ever,” by quoting an Intel supercomputer expert, who cited the supercomputer as “a step toward being able to do a real simulation of the physical world, which is what the ‘holodeck’ is all about on ‘Star Trek.'” Apparently, Star Trek is providing the consumption prototypes, and modern industry is simply struggling to keep up. Shading virtual reality further into surreality, the article proceeded to interview Ron Moore, producer of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine television series, for his opinion (or was it his vindication?) of the technological breakthrough. XML was supposed to be the same thing, and that holodeck metaphor keeps cropping up in new stories about virtual worlds, of which Second Life is by far the mass media’s pet site.

The Golden Age of Computing

This draws our focus to the intersubjective cultural allusions of the Sun ad (which I don’t truly investigate here, through, say depth interviews, but more on this later), and to an analysis of the main sociohistorical contexts informing it: science fiction and technologically utopianism.

Articulating our perception skyward, to space, the Sun Microsystems ad coyly toys with this middle ground between science fictional promise and technological product. “Networked age?” the ad asks. “Try golden age.” The allusion promises social perfection -Edenic fulfillment in a paradisiacal New Jerusalem.

Revealing the “Awesome Futures: They’re Coming Soon!” religious link between technology development, utopianism, and SF, the allusion also references the Golden Age of science fiction. The Golden Age depicted a futuristic techno-paradise in the pulp science fiction era of 1930s to 1950s. The Golden Age of science fiction owes much to American immigrant and amateur radio culture pioneer Hugo Gernsback who, in 1926, published the first “Scientifiction” (later science fiction) magazine “Amazing Stories.” The magazine’s recruitment policy, devoted to “the furtherance of science and its dissemination among the laymen of the world and the final betterment of humanity” (Ash 1975), explicitly linked the attainment of social with technological utopia. The Sun ad draws on these meanings when it links computer networks, a technological contrivance, to the achievement of social harmony and utopian perfection on Earth: a golden age.

Reflecting much of the Golden Age’s techno-utopianism, Star Trek’s future vision is noteworthy to contemporary consumer culture on several counts. First, it portrays technology as surrounding human beings (consuming them in a literal sense). Second, it is show enabling almost unlimited consumption of speedy transportation, food, communication, medical diagnostics and cures, weaponry, and information. As with Gernback’s millenialist manifesto, and Sun’s “golden age,” Star Trek’s depiction of technological consumption presents it with a halo of social utopianism, enhanced by the show’s anti-capitalist, collectivist, socialist-military setting (see Kozinets 2001).

Side by side with exemplars and “morality plays” (Whitfield and Roddenberry 1968) on racial equality and social harmony, advanced technology is represented in the show as capable of solving, and perhaps even necessary to the solution of, highly complex moral, ethical and social issues. Technology consumption seems to enable a just society of unlimited consumption, in which all sentient “races” (as alien species on the shows are often termed) are harmoniously joined in “United Federation.”

To understand the cultural allusion to techno- utopianism requires further exploration of the ad’s mythic referents, for the Sun Microsystems ad also provides a soundbite version of human social history.

The ad begins by stating that “The agricultural age transformed business.” The rapidfire evolution continues as the industrial age “revolutionized business.” To put our modern age (deemed by Sun, which is in the network business, the “network age”) in perspective, the ad states that these are times which are “reinventing business.”

Staying on this Star Trekian “frontier,” Sun inventories its technologies and then punnily claims that they help it to “launch” “enterprises” in “completely new directions.” The sense of historical trajectory has been firmly established, but what is this new direction? The penultimate line of copy provides a clue. Its golden age invocation is an appeal to the end of history, a time of millenialist completion. What better way to end such an appeal that with a crisp and cryptic, mantra-like chant?: “THE NETWORK IS THE COMPUTER.TM”

Rhetorically, the ad suggests a simplified history of humanity as a series of three tumultuous and business-led revolutions, followed by paradise and some sort of mystical union of social and technological networks.

Insinuating networked computers into history as utopian catalyst (yes, these were the days of the Matrix), this is a portrait of naturalized capitalism and technological determinism, fulfillment of human potential, culmination and evolutionary inevitability. It bespeaks a myth of the rise to social perfection through technology.

An analysis of the historical contexts behind this ad’s fictive retelling of history resonates with long-standing and deeply-held social meanings, for the Golden Age goblet from which Sun Microsystem sips has a stem that runs deep into Western history. It rests on a base of thought amplified in the influential utopian writings of the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution periods, times of significant changes in social thinking. Writers during that period revolutionized their rhetoric by transforming talk of a better place (eutopia) to talk of a better time (euchronia). “When this happened, utopias ceased to be imaginary constructions with which contemporary society might be compared, and began to be speculative statements about real future possibilities” (Grolier 1995).

Championed by medieval monks who believed that people and societies could be brought to a perfected state through the proper utilization of the “useful arts,” the idea may have already been old when, in the 17th century, Francis Bacon began the colonization of the “undiscovered country” -the future-by science and its promises of a technological utopia (Noble 1999). French philosophers during the second half of the 18th century joined the party as strident champions of the idea that moral and technological progress were interlinked, an Enlightenment ideal that would eventually be embraced by Western culture as a whole. In various guises, this has brought us what historian David Noble (1999) terms “the religion of technology.” Davis (1998, p. 105) describes this “millenialist mythology” as one in which “technological and scientific men have a duty to understand, conquer and tweak the world of nature for the sake of human salvation, both spiritual and practical.”

The quasi-religious motivational fervor fomenting high technology consumption is heated, then, by at least three strong and interlinked currents of meanings appropriated from science fiction and its inherently mystical and imaginative longings:

  • (1) the frontier,
  • (2) the culmination of history, and
  • (3) social utopia.

Given this intersubjective excavation, we can now perceive with enhanced clarity the ways in which these macro-cultural meanings seep into and energize the individual contexts of consumption thought, discourse, and practice. The introspective analysis reveals the presence of the frontier as adventurousness, a sense of being on the cutting edge of a fast moving and fashionable front of consumption. The fulfillment of historical promise has become intricated not only with notions of an endless present that rewrites history but, in my own phenomenological excavation, with the fulfillment of my own potential as a developing scholar and academic worker bee. The utopian undertones of high technology have resonated with the idealism and questing for meaning of my mind’s eye. Each of these elements of technology consumption have tuned into and amplified the science fiction meanings that have played important roles in the structuring of my imagination and, presumably, the popular imagination of many other professionals in similar social situations (see, e.g., Greenwald 1998).

Tomorrow, we move to technology ideology, which will open up and critique these meanings as a collectively shared ideology that excludes other, potentially more life-affirming alternatives.

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