You Are What You Consume

A letter from the O2 mobile telephone network, dated October 2003:

‘Dear Mr Evans,

At O2 we’ve been reviewing the rewards we provide and have found it necessary to make some changes.
We are sorry to have to tell you that the reward you have been receiving will end on 30th November 2003.
However your mobiles can still receive best plan advice..(etc)

..Yours sincerely,

Head of Customer Relationship Management, O2 UK’

A reading of the small print on the attached terms and conditions reveals that, despite three and a half years of custom and hundreds if not thousands of pounds paid in charges, a machine has calculated that my average monthly spend no longer justifies a loyalty reward. It is tempting to conjecture that the CRM algorithm has assessed my length of contract and realising that, as it is 7 months before I am able to cancel, the saving the withdrawal of the reward will give the company justifies the risk I will cancel my contract when term elapses. I did not receive a reply to my letter of complaint. Such is an experience of customer relationship management today.

But then can I expect anything different? I signed a new twelve month contract in exchange for a free new mobile phone that would have cost the company over £100. The company is also paying for the hugely expensive G3 licence as well as investing the infrastructure necessary to bring that technology into use. This is in the context of a fall in the cost of mobile services of over 60% over the last ten years.54  The company must make a profit. It’s business.

This dilemma illustrates the ambivalence of contemporary consumer experience. Competitive markets have led to the declining relative cost of a whole range of goods and services over the last 50 years, and contributed to significant increases in the standard of living for much of the industrialised West.55 Increasing competition, deregulation and the efficiencies created by technological development continue to push prices and margins down. The consumer likes this, but the companies do not. The need for companies to return profits within these markets can lead to a consumer experience beset with a sense of injustice and a feeling of powerlessness.

The relationship between producer and consumer, perhaps, has always been adversarial: ‘Caveat emptor’ and so forth. It is certainly true that the conception of the consumer embodied by digital marketing systems and techniques is one that would be familiar to a late Nineteenth century retailer:

  • People are only consumers.
  • Consumers are motivated to consume goods by group norms.
  • Consumers are essentially passive.
  • Consumers have no stake in the production process.

For the last 80 years these ideas of what a consumer is have been extraordinarily successful in delivering material prosperity to the societies of the democratic industrialised nations and to the companies that trade within them. It is interesting to ask if this conception of a consumer continues to be valid or effective. If, as I have claimed, the relationship between producers and consumers is dialectical, how have changes in the technologies of production, patterns of work and the values held by individuals changed what it is to be a consumer?

Clearly people have changed considerably over the period of the Post-Second World War boom and into the 21st century. Zuboff and Maxim are good on this area, citing a raft of statistics - from foreign holiday expenditure, to levels of home schooling, to the numbers using email, chat rooms and online communities.56 To those one might add the doubling of the mortgage churn rate (i.e. those customers moving lender) in the last seven years,57 the rising incidence of divorce,58 the lack of participation in democratic elections,59 the increasing indebtedness of individuals.60

The Support Economy is the latest in a number of books that have been published in recent years which discuss these changes in relation to business. What unites many of these books is an understanding of emerging individuality. The emergence is accounted for in different ways, but essentially comes down to an analysis that points to three factors that have/are causing change - diminution of the role of institutions in our lives, a change in values and the rapid spread of technology, particularly information technology. Central to these accounts is a description of over supply, memorably identified by Allen Questrom in the quote that heads the dissertation. We have lots of stuff, most of which we don’t need. Our basic needs in developed industrial countries have long since been met.

Zuboff and Maxim link oversupply and individuality explicitly. Considering the period of American economic history from the 1920s through to the 1990s, they see a number of consequences for Fordist production. Clearly mass production/consumption delivered enormous material benefits and unprecedented levels of per capita income. However, the bureaucracies and huge organisations that characterise this period and mode of production also engendered an insistence on group affiliation amongst the population. In Zuboff and Maxim’s interpretation, individuals sought sanctuary in the group, be it company, union or rotary club, as a way of ensuring material wealth, but also as a refuge from the chaos of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. This maybe a contentious point (did people earn their way out of unionisation or were they forced?), but the authors are convincing on their thesis that the generation of the early and mid twentieth century, like the workers at Fords plant, accepted the conditions of work as a pay off for material prosperity. The generations born in the industrial west after 1950, however, understood material comfort as a given, and that the ways of expressing aspiration and values moved away from objects and goods, and onto experience and individual self expression. The authors of Funky Business, a dotcom boom bible, adopt a more proselytising tone: ‘Freedom has thus been thrust back into our hands. Institutions used to work to create certainty. Now, the certainties are withering. Blind loyalty has died. We no longer proclaim lifelong loyalty to institutions, no matter what they are or what they do. We shop around.’61

Some see the changes as ominous, for instance, Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, laments the collapse in membership of various civic and voluntary organisations. For him this fundamental change represents selfishness and leads to a degradation of civic life and the depletion of social capital.62 For others, such as Zuboff and Maxim the new individuality is to be celebrated as a natural progression towards some ideal state of being. Rather than receiving one’s identity from such givens as family, gender, age and class, the personal construction of ones identity and meaning is seen as an individual’s life project. Ridderstrale and Nordstrom are more ambivalent in Funky business. They see choice and individuality as positive but also acknowledge the fragmentation of society, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the spiritual vacuum behind a society devoted to material satiety.

People have changed, but how they earn their living has changed also. To expect life long employment by the one company is now exceptional. Trade Unions, the expression of workers’ group identity, are no longer the dominant institutions they once were. Work life now is more demanding and less secure, with longer hours and the imposition of casual employment terms on whole swathes of industry, and not simply low income manual labour. Such changes do suggest a diminishment of collective action, be it collective bargaining or company pension schemes, but they do impel greater individuality and self reliance, with the need to retrain or to provide for one’s own retirement.

We return to the fragmentation that vexed the Financial Times, but one that is seen as a result of changing patterns of work and the values of individuals, rather than the product of technology or media platforms. However, it is the meeting of these three elements (changing patterns of work, new individuals and technology) that indicates a fundamentally new consumer, or a new way of being a consumer, is ready to emerge. Certainly, digital network technologies offer much to the consumer: one click shopping, online customer reviews, intelligent search bots, aggregated purchases and so forth. But a reduction of the possibilities of the internet to simply the tools of purchase is a mistake. As I have pointed out, the relentless automation and commoditisation such technologies represent, simply drive down margins and create their network opposite, CRM systems. These purchasing technologies can also be seen as strategies for the externalisation of costs by companies, that is, the consumer may pay less for a product, but ends up carrying out much of the work associated with purchase themselves (filling in application forms, configuring product etc).

Zuboff and Maxim make similar points in The Support Economy. Of the many books written by sociologists and business theorists on the consumer and the new technologies of marketing this is one of the most comprehensively and persuasively argued. At its heart is a compelling thesis that individuals have changed faster than the markets that serve them. Unfortunately, the work makes the mistake of extending consumerism to the level of culture, which has the reverse effect of collapsing all human experience into commodity, and with the corrosive effects of capitalism, we see experience emptied of meaning in the way machine intelligence empties humanity from intelligence.

‘Everyday life has become an object of consideration and is the province of organization; the space-time of voluntary programmed self-regulation, because when properly organised it provides a closed circuit (production-consumption-production), where demands are foreseen because they are induced and desires run to earth;.."63

Considering Lefebvre’s definition of ‘The Bureaucratic Society Of Controlled Consumption’64 as we read the futuristic propaganda of The Store Of The Future (and especially when we add that some have suggested that the predicted smart fridges have screens to display advertising for products you are running low on), we can see Lefebvre’s analysis realised in a grotesque technological vision. With George Bush’s exhortation to Americans to patriotically keep on shopping post 9/11, the obligations and limits of a life as a consumer became unusually visible.

Lefebvre sees the language and signs of marketing as conditioning how we think of ourselves. Compulsion is central to the ‘The Bureaucratic Society Of Controlled Consumption’, but also the images of marketing (what he calls publicity): ‘The act of consuming is as much an act of the imagination as a real act, (‘reality itself being divided into compulsions and adaptations) and therefore metaphorical (joy in every mouthful, in every perusal of the object) and metonymical (all of consumption and all the joy of consuming in every object and every action).’65 It is here that Lefebvre locates the eternal dissatisfaction that characterises modern life, compulsions programmed to desire the disembodied. This construction of systems of meaning around ‘real’ acts and artefacts, like the construction of the illusion of self in CRM systems, is challenged by the heterogeneity of data available of the web. Modern, ‘interactive’ marketing strategies attempt to deal with this complexity by themselves embracing their opposite, by the heavy use of self- parody or criticism, yet their effectiveness, compared to, say, 70s television advertising has been limited.

My contention is that the internet, taken as a whole, represents a massive search for voice and self-determination by individuals. It challenges the enervation of consumption. The huge amounts of data, experiences, opinions, beliefs and politics that the web disseminates and represents, suggest that, contrary to conventional notions, the consumer is neither passive, nor that they wish to remain divorced from the production process. I am thinking here of the legion of hobbyists, DIYers, enthusiasts. Indeed, vast areas of the internet were built, for free, by enthusiasts in their bedrooms. The challenges of the new digital technologies of communication go beyond questions of marketing and call into question the very configuration of the firm. The technology offers very powerful means for self-organisation and self-sufficiency, potentially replacing many of the organisational functions of a firm pioneered by Henry Sloan.

A step forward into this future of business and marketing might be an acceptance that individuals are more than simply consumers, that the need to consume goods and services is part of a complex of work and leisure and that the boundary between these two fundamentals of industrial capitalism - life as a worker, life as a consumer, are not as absolute as they once were. I agree with Zuboff and Maxim when they assert the new individual requires the formulation of new types of capitalist enterprise, one with the needs of the consumer at its heart. But whilst the best way to organise capital and labour to create wealth may not be the firm, the best marketing strategy of all is to give the individual a meaningful occupation and the time to enjoy its benefits.