Monthly Archives: October 2007

Organic Intellectualism, Conclusion, and References: Consumption Studies, Part 12 of 12

The Consumption Studies paper was originally written in 1998 and submitted to the Journal of Consumer Research. Although I received some very interesting and encouraging feedback, the paper was rejected. And for very good reasons, I believe.

The illustrative example of technological consumption meanings demonstrates a focus limited to only a few contexts relevant to the topic, and is certainly flawed and needs to be developed further (some of that work I have started to do here, and will continue to do). But it seeks to prove a point about the different lenses that get lumped together as “qualitative” work, and how they actually differ and complement each other.

Through that example, various overlapping contexts provided occasions for coordinating techniques of introspection, textual and historical analysis, and critical theoretic cultural criticism. A big ingredient that was missed in the original version that you saw posted here, which was picked up in subsequent revisions to the original document, was the inclusion of the intersubjective voice of others, of consumers reflecting about their own technology consumption. In fact, in subsequent revisions that included consumer interviews, it was this element that rose to the forefront, completely overshadowing the semiotic reading of the technology ad and the overt green criticism (implicitly, it remained). In future blog postings, I’ll have more announcements about the final deposition of the paper that this once was. I think the open format, showing you (the public, as well as those of you who practice “The Craft” of Re:Search) the tricky process of journal submission, rejection, and revision, can be quite informative.

On to the analysis, and the conclusion for this lengthy set of blog entries.

As the cultural meanings of that one single advertisement (the Sun Microsystems ad) met the subjective perceptions of one particular reader (yours truly), the result was a subjective account that highlighted the way in which science fiction meanings from the macro-social field had been appropriated by the industrial field of high technology marketing. The sociohistorical contexts of this association were empirically examined through textual interpretation and historical analysis. A collective framework that drew from contemporary criticism of consumer culture, particularly its social (e.g., Murray and Ozanne 1991, Rosenblatt 1999) and ecological (e.g., Ross 1991) aspects then explored the macro-societal ramifications of this conjunction of meanings. It concluded with a consideration of the collective context and a suggestion of a response from the research community.

Consumption studies such as this one can draw attention to a range of heretofore under-explored contexts. In the commingling of these different contexts, each of which impacts consumption, new configurations for consumer research might be suggested that might help begin the process of envisioning more inclusive, participative and ecologically sound social alternatives to contemporary consumption.

That is a major goal.

Conceiving of other crosscontextual consumption studies infers asking how, in the lived experience of individual consciousness and social relations, the intersubjective social meanings of other types of consumption get played out. It means continuing to ask about the moral ramifications for the suppression or actualizing of human (and ecological) potential.

Assuming such a perspective infers that philosophical polarities, and their attendant theory-method superstructures need to “get real” (Wells 1993) in order to ‘get along.’

It requires acknowledgment that the social reality that encompasses “Consumptions” is not linguistic, dynamic and multiple on the one hand, or material, immutable and singular or dialectic, moral and socially conflicted, on the other, but a synthesis: simultaneously and irreducibly all of these.

Truly living from within such a view of research means envisioning a consumer research that views consumption knowledge as similar to life itself: an ineluctably bumpy and unavoidably messy affair.

The very real tensions -especially of the axiological variety-that exist between paradigmatic theory/methods will not simply evaporate. (Recent ACR debates certainly attest to this.)

I believe, but still may have a difficult time proving it, that understanding when pursued as a terminal goal is qualitatively distinct from understanding as means to attaining prediction and control.

In the same manner in which the tensions and overlaps in the meaning of a word, symbol, or action (inevitably) exist within even the most single-minded text or actor, paradigmatic research tensions can coexist in research that deliberately manages them by strategically aligning epistemological perspectives in order to accomplish a cooperative or loosely coupled structure.

One the major obstacles hampering this type of coordination of contextual inquiries may arguably not be methodological, but psychological. It has been noted that researchers generally tend to refuse to acknowledge the equivalent validity of other “competitive” paradigmatic approaches. Burrell and Morgan (1979, p. 36) venture that relations between research paradigms are best described as “disinterested hostility,” perhaps because, as Giddens (1976, p. 142-4) maintains, researchers differentiate and identify themselves based on what their own research paradigm is and is not.

Good ol’ stinkin’ primate territoriality, short-term monkey tribe horizons, shit-slinging and chest-beating, and battles cries for scarce resources are the metaphors for the major “scholarly” impediments to the realization of Ferber’s (1977) “interdisciplinary ideal” for consumer research. There are, as Anderson (1986, p. 167) keenly notes, few systemic incentives encouraging interdisciplinary research, and considerable professional disincentives discouraging synthesis.

And that’s the rut we’re in as qualitative researchers living sort of on the margins of the field. But sometimes the ruts are the most fertile parts of the field (or the goat’s life).

Thinking of what we do as a unified field (a la “CCT”), the winding and branching streams of contextual inquiry in consumer research might find themselves naturally running together. This could happen if they were they to ground themselves in the same contexts, i.e., in theoretically rigorous examinations of issues that are socially, historically and politically relevant.

In so doing, they would be following Italian cultural studies theories Antonio Gramsci’s (1973) notion of the “organic intellectual,” a very useful and generative concept within the field of cultural studies (see, e.g., Hall 1986). You can also read here the original sections from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. I’ve loved this idea of the organic intellectual ever since I came across it as a Ph.D. student in 1996. It seems to fit extremely well with the age of technology that we are in, where academics have every opportunity to step down from their high perches and engage one-on-one with people who are doing their own interesting work, engaged in their own important and urgent issues, carrying their own intriguing opinions and theories, and who also, sometimes, might benefit from an academic perspective on matters.

As I see it, the organic intellectual is a scholar with responsibilities that commit research activities to three goals:

  • (1) social relevance: investigating currently vexing, situated social problems in realistic contexts,
  • (2) theoretical rigor: being at the very forefront of intellectual, theoretical work and, simultaneously,
  • (3) populist communicative activism: attempting to transmit in a meaningful way the ideas thus generated to those beyond the confines of an intellectual elite (fellow scholars, formal students) or even of a dominant social class (among whose ranks we might include business managers, the business press, prominent consultants, or the business intelligentsia), i.e. to the affected, or general, public.

The concept of the organic intellectual refocuses the contexts of contextual inquiries in consumer research.

The focus on social relevance means that the collective contexts that consumer research considers shift away from the interests of the industrial (and various research and academic elites) towards those of particular consumer communities and other macro-social communities, e.g., government, public institutions, general society.

The emphasis on theoretical rigor is a strong suit of contemporary consumer researchers. But new and more comprehensive theory might be required in order to investigate consumption in this manner, as a complex interrelation of multiple contexts. Not so much new theory, and new methods, but “Rosetta stone” type code-switching and translation patterns. How exactly do we cross the various sub-disciplinary bridges, how to we build expertise in highly fragmented solos, how do we cross divides in whays that keep everyone happy that “rigor” was served and “validity” was not compromised? The primary contexts we would need to cross would include research, macro-social, micro-cultural and industrial domains, and the view from the intersection of these points is at once highly revealing (thus the edgework is risky and exciting, perhaps not for juniors, or on the other hand exactly for juniors) and also much more informative than the view from any one of them alone.

Finally, the organic intellectual’s emphasis on populist communicative activism practically requires a reconsideration of the subjective contexts (identities, roles, practices) of consumers researchers and research consumers (who may shift from being fellow academics, to members of the public). This suggests radical alterations in our modes of research presentation and the distribution of our discoveries. These sorts of shifts won’t happen overnight, but I like to think that more engaged and engaging forms of research representation, such as the videographic forms that Russ Belk and I have been exploring along with many other consumer researchers, will help to provide some strong examples. In terms of straightforward organic intellectuals, Henry Jenkins has always been my role model in his work, and his blog is exemplary in this regard. He doesn’t talk down to people, he shares his research openly, he is seeking multiple conversations abotu topics that matter, and doing it in a way that is both rigorous and accessible to intelligent and interested people.

Engaged increasingly in general public discourse about consumers’ consumption, rather than specialized business discourse about consumer commerce, a consumption studies focus would bring the consumer research field into closer alignment with the “issues” orientation of similarly oriented subfields of anthropology, sociology and cultural studies.

Organic intellectual work in consumption studies points us to research impact, an impact that comes from balancing description and accessible abstraction in theory. It directs us to pursue research whose legitimacy comes from balancing procedural rigor and social conscience in persuasive rhetoric –providing a mixed and arranged marriage of science and praxis.

And that’s all about Consumption Studies….for now. Thanks for Listening!

Here is the reference list for all 12 segments:


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Mick, David Glen and Susan Fournier (1998), “Paradoxes of Technology: Consumer Cognizance, Emotions, and Coping Strategies,” Journal of Consumer Research, 25 (September), 123-143.

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Considering Consumer Freedom: From Paris Hilton to Consumption Literacy

Sorry for all the gaps in posting. I feel kind of guilty. I just returned on Sunday from the Association for Consumer Research annual North American conference, which was held this year in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a great conference this year, although the doctoral consortium was marred by some very strange comments that presented a “blast from the past” sense of derision towards the work that cultural consumer researchers do. In every group, as I’ve been writing about here, there is inclusion and exclusion. And certainly consumer culture researchers are still in that marginal, slightly-stigmatic state in our field. Even when it isn’t mentioned as overtly as it was this year. It’s a topic that concerns me, and I’ll keep coming back to it.

This year, David Mick organized a great session that I wrote about last week. Renan Wagner had some great comments and thoughts (using some Baudrillardian insights) that I tried to pick up on in my further comments here…but let me know if I missed something. I think the Epistemic Session on consumer freedom went very well. For today’s posting, I’m going to provide a complete and slightly expanded version of the short speech I gave in that session. Here it is.

* * * ** * ** * ** *

Epistemic Session Comments-Robert V. Kozinets

originally presented on Friday October 26, 8 a.m., Peabody Hotel, Forest Room, Memphis, Tennessee

In the last decade or so, we consumer researchers have increasingly been asking ourselves questions about consumer freedom and the levels of constraint that consumers do or do not face:

* Are Consumers Truly Free, or Does the Market Construct Freedom?” (Baudrillard 1968; Debord 1967; Firat and Venkatesh 1995; Gabriel and Lang 1995)

* Can Consumers Escape the Market? (Kozinets 2002)

* Should Consumer Citizens Escape the Market? (Arnould 2007)

* Are All Attempts at “Real” Countercultural Change Co-Opted by Commercialism? (Frank 1997; Heath and Potter 2004; Thompson and Coskuner-Balli 2007)

In case you haven’t read the aforementioned papers, the answers, of course, are: No, No, Definitely No, and Yes, But It’s Okay.

However, in order to enter into a coherent and meaningful discussion of a topic like this, we need to first get onto firmer semantic ground, particularly as Eric and I attempted to do in the two papers I just mentioned, where we sought to define our terms (Arnould 2007; Kozinets 2002).

* What exactly do we mean by “Consumers”? Are these just people? All people? Human beings? Middle-class Americans living in style in the era of late capitalism? People who are acting in a certain way in a certain kind of system?

* What about “escape”? What is that about? Isn’t there a romantic, return-to-some-ideal-state utopian sense conveyed by the use of this word.

* What is “Culture”? There’s another huge referent. Are we talking about all of society society? Or “just” consumer culture?

* “Freedom.” There’s an ideologically locked and loaded term if ever we’ve encountered one. So full of all sorts of baggage, and imprecise as well. Are we talking about freedom from, or freedom to? Freedom from what oppressions, exactly, and to do what, particuarly? Freedom to choose in what way, which things, how?

* Finally, the biggie: The Dreaded Market. That alleged, villainous oppressing bugaboo.

Are Consumers Truly Free to Make Choices in the Market, or are they oppressed, manipulated, deviously twisted, constrained and held down? As the ACR bulletin board discussions on this topic by Eric Arnould, Nik Dholakia, Russ Belk, and Craig Thompson quickly pointed out, the terms Market and Consumer are just aca-speak for examinations of the relationships between individual and society, self and collective, agency and structure. This is the old question of social control, cast in “perfect” ideal typic terms.

But markets and freedom to do what we want within them are always relative in reality. In a market society do I have the same “freedom” to choose to consume as does Paris Hilton? Do I even have the same freedom to act, to move around, to go where I want, wear what I want, do what I want? She seems an icon of pure consumer control, consumption unencumbered by any strictures. Perfect Consumption: All-Consuming. Judging by the paparazzi pictures, I’d have to say no. By virtue of Paris’s position in the social hierarchy, she has much more freedom as a consumer, as a person in a commercial, market-driven world, than you or I do.

Similarly, we have much more freedom that those others who seem out of control, without control, beyond control of their lives as consumers. Are the underprivileged, the impoverished, the disadvantaged, the underclasses of the world “truly free” of the market-of social controls? It’s difficult to think of that type of freedom in the same way that we think of Paris Hilton’s freedom. The notion of escape would be almost strange to them. It’s likely that they don’t want to break out of this alleged prison of social consumption control, this gilded cage, so much as they desire to break in and enjoy its bountiful harvest.

My colleague Andy Crane is in the field of Business Ethics but he and his colleagues are busy examining issues of consumer culture. He recently wrote a paper with a colleague that talks about the notion of “Consumer Responsibility” (Caruana and Crane 2007). Citing Zygmunt Bauman’s (1993, 1995) work, these author state:

…that highly bureaucratized institutions engender an ‘adiaphoric’ (amoral) context for consumer choices. When organised within this matrix, people’s choices are framed squarely in terms of utility and satisfaction, this rationalized marketing vernacular neither allowing nor calling for morality. More than this, he argues that corporations not only allow consumers to forget about moral issues but they actively assist in ‘forgiving’ consumers from engaging in moral choices. We might view current managerialist depictions of consumer responsibility to mythologize about ethical and social concerns on the one hand, whilst at the same time, expunging moral dilemmas that may inhibit the efficiency of the marketing process. (The bolding is mine.)

Indeed, we have a responsibility, a burden, to vote at the cash register, to make our choices. And we exercise this freedom almost automatically, naturally, many times a time. We have to exercise this freedom, paradoxically in order to have the essentials of life: food, drink, warmth, space, a place to sleep.

So a people living in a commercial society of course we have various levels and degrees of freedom, and varying levels and degrees of constraint. This is what my co-authors and I called in our ESPN Zone article for JCR “inter-agency”: always there is the culture in the individual, and the individual in the culture, inextricably intertwined.

We are talking about some very big questions. In some ways, this grand view-from-thirty-five-thousand feet level of philosophical discussion can blur the details and make muddy the investigation of particulars that would be more pragmatically useful to consider. What if we move from disengaged macro-question down to more engaged micro-questions and micro-politics?

So rather than asking if consumers are truly free, what if we asked questions about the cultural and structural elements of our society that cause every one of us to eat genetically modified food every single day? What if we asked about how the cultural and structural elements of our society, and the individual proclivities, that perpetuate the consumption of crack or crystal methamphetamine in our streets and homes? Or about the structures, proclivities, and elements of our society that perpetuate the choices that lead to overeating and obesity, or choosing to start smoking, to buying MP3s online rather than CDs in a retail store, to prevent people from fixing their own cars, making healthy dinners, or taking public transportation?

What if we started to ask (as Russ Belk’s clever inversion did on the ACR web board) not how free might consumer be, but How Free Should Consumers Be? How Free Should We Be? Free to consume handguns, semi-automatics, and child pornography? Free to eat shark’s-fin and tiger-paw soup? To gobble up the last of our planet’s endangered species in foul-tasting tonics for impotence? Obviously, many people think that there should be some limits on our freedom to consume. But what and where? How?

Our investigation would then lead us into very different places. We would have to look at regulatory structures, including government regulation and its enforcement. We would need to start thinking about Consumer Rights and what that means-a right to consume, or not to consume? A right to choose to live so as not to consume in a certain way as well as to choose to consumer in certain ways? It would lead us beyond simple marketplace mechanisms like choice among products and services in a category, into other, intertwined, complex forms of social control?

I think that these grounded micro-investigations would lead us to think not only about the flow of materials and services, but also the flow of behind-the-scenes production and material resources. It would lead us to think about the flows of information about them, such as Nike’s old Cambodian sweatshops, and Mattel’s lead-laden Chinese toy factories and, on the positive side, Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. At the ground level, these questions about choice would almost inevitably draw us towards thinking about information flows and blockages in our society and culture, and what an actively engaged, participatory citizenship would look like and feel like in the consumer sphere.

We would start to move to models of Consumption Literacy. My son in Grade Four has a textbook that has media literacy sections throughout it that seek to teach kids how to read labels and judge commercial claims. For instance, the kids are presented with pictures of products promoted using cartoon characters like Sponge Bob, or nifty names and loveable labels like Hawaiian Punch. The textbook then unpacks the claims one by one, and subjects them to interrogation, and explains the difference between implied and overt message claims in product packaging. This isn’t merely “media” literacy, it is applied consumer research, code switching, even inoculation. And we are on the other side of this issue, teaching marketers this craft of encoded messaging, while leaving it to communication studies departments to teach decoding skills to young consumers.

But taking consumer freedom seriously might ask us to do more. We would start to more seriously research and teach consumers about how to engage their freedom, expand it where necessary, and understand the incredibly difficult and painful need to contract it for the greater good. What a wartime-like sacrifice that would be.

We might think about how to unite and align the needs of the society, of our species even, as best as we collectively and sagely could discern it, with the needs, signals, cues, hints, and suggestions that we as individuals process and make meaning out of every day in hundreds of ways.

So in a time of rapid change and multiple crises such as the one we now face more than ever before, perhaps the questions we need to think about and consider collectively are not just about how free we are, but how free we need to be? Perhaps what we want to also consider is what consumption related freedoms we might be best, we might be smartest, to begin to do without.


Arnould, Eric J. ( 2007), “Should Consumer Citizens Escape the Market?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 611 (1), 96-111.

Baudrillard, Jean (1968), Le Systäme des Objets, Paris: Gallimard.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993) Postmodern ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1995) Life in fragments. Essays in postmodern morality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Caruana, Robert and Andrew Crane (2007), “Constructing Consumer Responsibility: The Role of Corporate Communications in Defining Responsible Modes of Consumption,” University of Manchester and York University Working Paper.
Debord Guy (1967), The Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (3), June, 239-267.

Frank, Thomas (1997), The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Gabriel, Yiannis and Tim Lang (1995), The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and its Fragmentations, London: Sage Publications.

Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter (2004), The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can’t Be Jammed, New York: HarperCollins.

Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 20-38.

Thompson, Craig J. and Gokcen Coskuner-Balli (2007), “Countervailing Market Responses to Corporate Co-optation and the Ideological Recruitment of Consumption Communities,” Journal of Consumer Research, 34 (2), 135-52.

Are Consumers Truly Free?: Epistemic Sessions and A Planet in Peril

Are consumers free?, asks a new “Epistemic Session” at the Association for Consumer Research this Friday morning. I’m delighted to be on a panel session organized by David Mick of U. Virginia, along with Tom O’Guinn of UW-Madison and Lisa Penaloza of EDHEC.

It’s a tough question, philosophical, maybe a bit abstract. As soon as you scratch the surface of that question you begin to encounter the fact that the values of the collective group are manifest through the thoughts, meanings, and actions of the individual, and the collective is made up of amassed individual influences. Culture, the market, the community, the collective–whatever you want to call it–it’s a big part of being us, and it constrains what we do as surely as pretty much as securely as our genetics do. Despite our shared need to differentiate and strong culture of rugged invididualism, it turns out that we’re pack animals after all. Solid primates, one and all.

Five years ago I published an article whose title asked “Can Consumers Escape the Market?” The answer: nope. Not really. Not if by consumers you mean people and by market you mean our entire culture and civilization.

Of course, there are degrees of freedom. This all hearkens back to what’s called the “Structure versus Agency” debate, which asks pretty much the same thing: how free is the individual to make choices and act in our society? The answer is contingent on many things, and its become pretty clear that people in our society are neither wholly free nor completely oppressed, but somewhere interestingly in between.

The Session and its core question is spurring some very interesting discussion on the Association for Consumer Research web-site, which I believe is publicly accessible here. There are lots of great posts. One of my favorite ones so far is by my friend and colleague Russ Belk, who talks about a classroom exercise he conducts in order to illustrate some of these points. He says:

“When I teach an introductory marketing course I have students do an in-class exercise to create their own economy by focusing on specific cases of what consumers in their economy will and will not be allowed to freely choose. I begin by soliciting the amount of support for allowing free choice for each member of such pairs of consumer goods as:

1. Guns and knives
a. Handguns and rifles
b. Butcher knives and switchblades
2. Firecrackers and hand grenades
3. Cigarettes and marijuana
a. For children and adults
b. For the poor and the rich
4. Alcohol and heroin
5. Motor-scooters and Hummers
6. Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and hardcore pornography
7. Prostitution and child pornography

As a result of these straw polls we get some interesting splits (e.g., knives are okay, but guns, or at least handguns, should be outlawed). So then I ask “Why will you allow choice A, but not choice B?” Although a few libertarians insist that all of these things should be freely available, most believe that there must be some freedom of choice but also some restraint where having total freedom of choosing would result in negative individual or social consequences.

So after a day of these guns versus butter sorts of arguments we begin to further consider how to create a fair, just, and humane society, how much is enough, how much is too much, who is responsible for addressing problems like global warming, and so forth. Finally, having hopefully sensitized class members to social versus individual interests, we circle back to the earlier choices and I ask are consumers really free to choose or really precluded from choosing each of these things in our own economy. . . .What these exercises suggest is that underlying the behavioral questions raised here are philosophical questions with important political, moral, environmental, and economic implications.”

So, illustrating the characteristic way he brilliantly inverts questions, Russ is drawing our attention to the flipside. Although the question tended to lead us to where consumers were constrained and might need more freedom, Russ is leading us to consider where consumers are free and might need more supervision or restraint, and also to consider why we aren’t so free–why there are social controls where collective forces restrict individual urges.

And while I’m plugging the ACR session on Friday (wake up early, it’s a 8 am), I may as well plug the CNN Special “A Planet in Peril.” It premieres tonight at 9 PM EST. It’s being hyped pretty effectively already, but I’m going to lend my WOM voice and blog to the chorus. I think Ted Turner and CNN aren’t afraid to tackle the big issues, which are our species’ environmental impacts, the legacy of our current age and its consumer culture and lifestyle. He’s been raising awareness of the issue for almost two decades now (does anyone else remember Daniel Quinn’s amazing novel “Ishmael“), and this looks like it could well be a milestone documentary, a great eye-opener in the tradition of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The two topics–the Epistemic Session and the Planet in Peril– are intimately connected.

As Citizen Consumers, how are we free to help the planet and how are we deeply, systemically restricted? As Citizen Consumers, what sorts of actions would have the biggest impact in reducing planetary devastation the quickest? That’s not an ivory tower exercise. That’s the Great Challenge of our times.

Purification, Chemicals, and Organic Versus Veggie Wash

Something different, again.

By night I am a tireless marketing professor, seeking to fill the world with wonderful new products and services that make people’s lives better. But by day I am a mild-mannered consumer who is trying to eat healthy and to feed his family healthy, but also has to live within a budget.

In preparation for tomorrow’s blog entry on being an “Organic Intellectual” I thought I’d play on words a little bit. I’m currently reading a very good book that is truly frightening, about the sheer amount and toxicity of the chemicals in our food, water, and air. It’s by Randall Fitzgerald and it’s called “The Hundred Year Lie.” The part of the book I like most is on solutions, in particularly detoxification regimes. Fitzgerald, who is an investigative reporter, indicates that a regime of raw food, fasting, wheatgrass juice, colonic cleansing, infrared saunas, and organic foods can help to reduce our bodies’ level of toxicity. It sounds pretty good and sensible to me (um…except for the colonic cleansing part).

Along those lines, particularly in regards to organic food, I would just like to know something, Are organic foods healthier than regular mainstream foods that are washed with a pesticide remover solution? I’ve been looking for good books and information on this topic but can’t seem to find anything useful or scientific in the least.

Does anyone remember P&G’s failed experiment with a product called “Fit”? Fit was designed to remove about 98% of the pesticide and other residues on the surface of fruits and vegetables. Fit was originally developed by Procter & Gamble in 2000, developed from food related extracts like citric acid and grapefruit oil. Fit flopped horribly in 2001, and was eventually sold to HealthPro Brands in 2006. I see several scientific tests related to the brand online attest to its efficacy at killing bacteria. I see that the product is available online here. Actually, although the product failed, I think it was a very good idea, and might be made to work again with the right approach, or better timing.

My family currently uses a Veggie Wash (works on fruits too; maybe the category is “Food Wash” but that sounds strange) called “Nature Clean” which claims to be an “all-natural fruit and veggies spray wash.” As far as I can tell, the main ingredient is sodium lauroyl sarcosinate, which sounds like sodium lauryl sulfate which is in most soaps. But the label says that this is a “food grade cleaner” that is made “from palm oil.” Okay, but there are no efficacy claims at all on the package, or related to it. It’s just a Veggie Wash. Plain and simple. And that’s what I’m curious about.

It’s definitely part of our purification preparation ritual for the food. But does it work?

And how much of what we’re buying as “organic” really is pesticide-free, anyways?

How does one stack up against the other? Economically, as well as in terms of how much pesticide residue is entering our bodies?

Here’s the bigger question that concerns me as a consumer: Do we have any information, any recourse, any way of finding out the answers to these questions? How might the Internet play a role, a big role. Maybe, just maybe, we can use our conversations to collectively empower ourselves as consumers-and as citizens. And I think the chemicals in our food and in our water might be a great place to start the conversation. I’ll circle back to this later.

Technology Ideology: Green Criticism and Consumption Studies, Part 11

I’m back from a fantastic MSI Conference on Service Innovation and Design in Palo Alto. I met a great group of people and learned about some truly fascinating projects going on at IBM, Boeing, Wells Fargo, McDonald’s, Vans, ING Direct, and Yahoo, not to mention connecting with  design people like the IDEO masterminds Diego Rodriguez and Mark Jones. It was stimulating and enlightening and crossed disciplinary boundaries–everything a conference goer or planner could hope. Hats off to Peter Lawrence and Mike Hanssens for putting together such a top-notch conference, and to Earl, Donna, Michelle, Marni, and all the MSI staff for pulling it off with their usual friendliness and efficiency.

If you haven’t checked out the Corporate Design Foundation and their amazing, invaluable publications, @Issue, which I’ve subscribed to and found a very useful teaching aid since 1999, then I urge you to check it out via these links. Peter Lawrence runs the place and does broadening and publicizing work that is paving the way for increasingly productive discussion and collaborations between the worlds of Innovation, Design, and Marketing.

So, let’s get back to this ideological analysis. I think that an analysis of technology from a “green critical” lens is of some general value, and I’m also presenting it here as an example (albeit a flawed one, I admit) of a bricolage technique that is attuned to subjective, intersubjective, and collective contexts, as per my discussion of Consumption Studies as a method.

I’m going to have a lot more to say and share about this topic of technology ideology very soon, but for now, let’s look at what I wrote about the topic back in September of 1999 when I first wrote and submitted this piece…..let’s tune into day of techno-yore, and listen in as our humble writer begins to weave his turgid aca-tale….

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A critical perspective, such as that of critical theory, is an additional perspective necessary now in order to unpack these consumption meanings as a form of ideology that might have negative consequences for human (and non-human) well-being. This is a first step towards the (also utopian) aim of critical theory research programs that, as Murray and Ozanne (1991, p. 129) explain, engages in “social critique” that “aims to help people envision a better society.”

We should start by asserting that the promise of technology to help build a better society is, in some -perhaps many-circumstances, being fulfilled. Information technology is enabling many of the blessings (as well as the curses) of technoscientific capitalism to penetrate to the far corners of the globe, albeit rather selectively, favoring richer over poorer, literate over illiterate, industrialized over industrialized cultures and groups, and often helping to amplify some of the distances between these groups, the so-called “digital divide.”

However, the perspective that privileges high technology consumption as the exploration of a utopian frontier of human perfection maintains itself by a logocentric process that largely excludes contradictory perspectives. This exclusionary process leads to a pressure that Leiss (1990, p. 10) terms the “technological imperative,” the headlong drive to develop and adopt new technologies that can serve as an excuse for avoiding our collective “need to make reasoned choices about our future.”

The range of contradictory positions that could be considered against the technological imperative position is almost infinite. For tractability, this social critique will limit itself to a position that high technology consumption has aggravated crises of consumption by “driving us farther from reality…and from each other” (Borgmann 1999; Rosenblatt 1999, p. 15). Specifically, this illustration’s critical perspective, inspired by a combination of critical theory and green (as in ecological) criticism, suggests questioning: (1) the idea that the frontiers of social reality can or should be so easily decoupled from the “natural” world in which human being is ensconced, and (2) the particular relations of power that serve as the basis for the industrial ideology that promotes this move towards the cyberspatial frontier.

A disembodied and disconnected perspective is hinted at by the purely textual character of the Sun ad. As purely symbolic, it contains only the efficient all-business precision of ink on paper: no photographs, nothing recognizable from the biological or natural world. It suggests the extraction of pure content from messy context, the dehistoricizing and depoliticizing of technology in science fiction and business imagery, in which it offers a social reality “virtually” filled with the pure and limitless satisfaction of needs and desires -a space we are told is/sold as utopian.

Topping its late-mover competitor Microsoft, Sun’s headline suggests that, as with the American migration westward, and with Star Trek’s more cosmic movement, society is in the process of mass exodus from the physical realm to the more evanescent worlds of cyberspace. We must move along with it, quickly, quickly. “All aboard!”

Yet the move into virtual reality seems natural only as a progression of Western culture’s increasing disconnection and distancing from nature (Borgmann 1999, Leiss 1990).

For every pound of product manufactured in the United States, at least 32 pounds of waste is created (Hawken, Lovins and Lovins 1999). On the consumption side, the average American directly or indirectly uses 125 pounds of material every day, or about 23 tons per year (ibid). Americans waste more than a million pounds of material per person per year (ibid).

Infotech industries, despite their “virtual” “information” aura, play very important roles in this process of pollution. “Current processes used to manufacture both semiconductors and printed wiring boards [essential to high technology equipment] consume large volumes of water, solvents and other gases” (Eisenberger 1996). Dangerous gases such as perfluorocompounds are used in the manufacture of silicon wafers and the majority of these gases are released to pollute the atmosphere, where they have a lifetime of ten thousands of years (ibid). Portable computers and yes, even our beloved iPods and cellphones, frequently use environmentally risky substances such as cadmium and lithium in their batteries (ibid). Because of rapid technology changes and fashionably short life cycles, still functioning computer and telecommunications equipment is frequently consigned to landfill dumps where those elements will leach into the environment.

Environmentalists argue that we are reaching the limits of the biosphere, and that industries such as the computer industry are largely unable to clean up the polluted and despoiled mess it has already made (Rosenblatt 1999). Global warming is an accepted reality, yet most of the solutions to its impending dramatic climate change are technological in origin, such as hybrid or electric vehicles.

To our Western twenty-first century mindset, expressing such concerns about limits is almost embarrassingly chicken-littleish, divorced entirely from any sort of revolutionary or utopian drive -completely not sexy. These nonrational emotions and status consideration profoundly affect our decisions. In the “networked age” that Sun Microsystems likens to the coming of New Jerusalem, science fiction and information technology have brilliantly merged in social directions the fantastic, the desirable, and the development of new products.

In a potentially dangerous development for our species, envisioning cultural alternatives to the ongoing and increasing consumerist onslaught of high technology and other consumerist production now proves incredibly difficult.

Similarly denaturalizing, in many cases information technology consumption seems to lead to a contraction of ourselves as embodied physical beings. Seeing the world as only information, or information as the only world can lead to a dangerous degeneration of both.

In hacker culture, in some sense the backbone of much of Internet culture, the body itself is generally regarded as inferior and crass: it is considered “meat” (Davis 1998). Seeking cyberspace as final frontier reflects this ultimately mystical longing for the ecstasy of bodily transcendence. Yet even while it is imaginatively attached to 3D virtual worlds and avatars, the worthy successors to the nineties virtual goggles and gloves, or to floating international space stations (aptly named “Freedom”-there’s that theme again), humanity’s future undoubtedly will remain for a long time as part of an intricate web of life on a shrinking planet with some hard-and-fast natural limits.

Philosopher Albert Borgmann (1999) finds that, in fostering a disconnection with the natural world and our own bodies, information technology consumption is aggravating “a hidden sort of suffering” that follows as we slowly obliterate and disconnect our sense of self and being from the physical and natural reality of which we are inextricably a part.

It is the misery of persons who lose their well being not to violence or oblivion, but to dilation and attenuation. They suffer when the moral gravity and material density of things is overlaid by the lightness of information. The Fear is that people are losing their character and definition in the levity of cyberspace. The engagement of reality is the proximate remedy for this condition, and yet many of us find it hard to face up and to be faithful to persons and things (Borgmann 1999, p. 232).

Business institutions’ embracing of the heady ideology of technological futurism and its concomitant technological imperative draw from a long history in which consumers have been prompted into passively accepting the general contours of an industrially-envisioned future.

Bringing the future to life” has become simultaneously the crisp mandate of business and the dreamy technomantra of consumption, but this was not always so. In fact, it used to be the domain of religion, then Kings, then government. Business’s whimsical rhetoric of technological futurism might be traced to its success at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, billed as “the first fair in history ever to focus entirely on the future” (Franklin 1980). By 1939, the religion of technology had become the ideology of capitalist business, a powerfully legitimate and utopian justification for the now-inexorable rise of business as a social institution (Leiss 1990; Noble 1977, 1999).

What the 1939 World’s Fair rendered abundantly transparent was that the history of envisioning socially utopian futures, which had its origins in progressive left traditions, religious sects, and the prognosticatory subculture of science fiction literature, had been almost wholly appropriated by elite business (and military) interests (Davis 1998, Ross 1991). It remains entrenched there through futurology, taught in many of our marketing classes today (mine, at least) as strategic or scenario planning, “a science of systems analysis created to facilitate military and industrialized planning and fully institutionalized today as an instrument for acquiring strategic military or corporate advantage” (Ross 1991, p. 170).

By the time the digital nineties had arrived, a critically important form of rhetorically legitimizing the operations of the business elite had become institutionalized. As Hamel and Prahalad (1994) put it in Competing For the Future, businesses must create the future by envisioning and colonizing it through “constantly searching for, investing in and mastering the technology that will bring unanticipated benefits to humankind” (Hamel and Prahalad 1994, p. 321).

The rhetorical ends behind technology production are powerfully motivating (and mysterious), but the established means owe more to technocracy than democracy.

Franklin (1980, p. 121) argues that the World’s Fair exhibits illustrate how the business of planning the future is to be enacted: “It is the corporation that plans and builds, while the people are purely passive, comfortably watching the creation in motion as mere spectators.” I can’t help but think of people locked into an EPCOT ride, being moved through a corporation’s vision of the future as it one day will be. Gift, promise, spectacle, and burden.

Leiss (1990, p. 5-6) outlines four false notions, termed “idols of technology” that have formed around modern society’s enthusiastic commitment to technological progress.

  • First is the notion that “modern [i.e., competitive, productivity-driven] conditions compel us to make our values and institutions conform to” technologies.
  • Secondly, that “our commitment to science and technology marks a qualitative break with all previous human history.”
  • Third, that “every technological breakthrough is presented as a triumph for humanity in general,” allaying concerns over equitable distributions of costs and benefits.
  • Finally, that the undeniable achievements of science and technology have led to “an attitude of arrogant superiority towards all other ways of interpreting the human experience,” and that technoscience has become the ultimate arbiter of values, social justice and ultimate meaning.

The Sun Microsystems ad, with its staccato world history, inevitability, technomantra and golden age, suggests such a ride. High technology businesses reinvent business. Other businesses follow along. Society is transformed.

As consumers, we roll on by, our cities increasingly theme-parked, our bodies and lives increasingly industrial experiences.

Rapidly propelled, our networks autopilot us in competitive vehicles, into cyberspace’s final frontier.

With its innate appeals to egoism and its constantly changing fancies, there seems little any of us can do except strive to keep up. Despite its communitarian rhetoric, in its major thrusts there seems little room in this prefab and commercially colonized version of digital utopianism for democratically-planned technological development and production.

This is not to suggest a one-sidedness to the social debate over technology. Ever since the massive social and political upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, there has been a psychology of regulated fear surrounding technological production and consumption. But these anxieties have been largely and successfully managed, through the spindoctor marketing of optimistic science fictional daydreams and the fashionable social glorification of technological aptitudes.

Our corporately-launched cultural visions of the Future (both our personal, possible selves and our societal future worlds) are intimately interlinked with our expected technological consumptions. Reflected in the mass consciousness of popular culture, our cultural visions of the future oscillate between two poles.

On one end are the courageous, risk-taking, naively optimistic and progressive technofetishizations of Enlightenment spirits such as Bacon, Gernsback, Star Trek, and the corporate elite. On the other are the gritty, unintended-consequence-laden, nasty, brutish, technological dystopias seen, for instance, in Blade Runner, Alien, RoboCop, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix and hundreds of other popular cultural texts (including, ironically, Gibson’s Neuromancer). Overhwelmingly, utopia and dystopia alike seem to envision a future of exponentially increasing technology, and less contact with the natural world. Yet, if we are democratically to forge a future that can contribute to the achievement of social and ecological betterment, neither of these fictive futures presents a viable guide.

Who bears responsibility for a remedial vision to counter the limitless and competitive growth-driven (il)logic behind high technology consumption? It is certainly unfair to excoriate society and business’s view of future perfection as a totalizing one completely devoid of social and ecological considerations, and simultaneously to exonerate the individuals emplaced within such confining social structures. Yet the gainful lessons history suggests are that, as Ross (1991, p. 134) demonstrates, science and technology are hegemonic ideologies in their own right, intimately tied up with the corporate military-industrial-media organization of power (see also Aronowitz 1988; Franklin 1980; Noble 1977, 1999; Rosenblatt 1999).

As members and incubators of the business elite, business researchers and scholars sell themselves, their colleagues, their clients, and their students on a utopian ideological logic of market orientations, needs satisfaction, brave innovators and early adopters, elite scenario planning and strategic future visioning.

As members of an elite group, we each have opportunities to insert ecological considerations, human potential issues, and social democratic thought into our dialogs about strategic planning and new product development, and into our many consumptions.

We need to question the fashionability of technology, and its role in social dominance locally and globally. We need to question the rapid and planned obsolescence of all things technological, and interrogate the sources and resting places of our technologies. We need to question the alienating lifestyles and identities prompted by our travels in cyberspace.

We need to question, on a human and planetary scale, the foundations and consequences of our technologically utopian trajectory, and the exclusionary processes by which it maintains power.

By first questioning the role that these consumptions play in our oppressions and sense of disconnection, we can begin to open doors to disempowered and marginalized groups, individuals and issues, and can help them to be heard, democratizing and ecologizing the process of deciding on the shape and feel of the future. Consciously problematizing the previously unconscious lure behind the lore of technological utopianism, we need to begin envisioning and enacting wiser social alternatives.

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 naïve 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.

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 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….