Antisophie on: Black Friday in the UK

[Thanks to Antisophie for penning this at 1am]

 

“Can you say something about Black Friday [for the blog]?” – Michael asked me. “So long as you let me be honest”, I replied.

 

I had the same line as he did initially. A response of cynicism and despair about all the negative things it entails. Firstly, the idea of a Black Friday surely presupposes a Thanksgiving Thursday does it not? However there’s something a little bit rich about having a US holiday in the UK where the traditional narrative of Thanksgiving is about a group of British (and other European) exiles settling in a new land. Probably not the narrative that the UK would want to address given the whole immigration ‘crisis’ it’s dealing with in the political public sphere.

 

I was going to say it’s a cynical attempt to display the naked capitalistic/Marxist narrative where our consumption is the most ingrained/taught/primal desire, evidenced by all the notorious stories about violence and disorder as people seemingly panic buy special ‘one time only’ deals in retail hubs.

 

Then I thought about two things. Firstly, how the former old guard of grocery/supermarket retail organisations are in a bit of a fight for survival with new players, and secondly I can’t decry Black Friday because I bought so much (unintentionally).

 

The retail issue

 

As someone who works in an industry where…lets say, I depend on the sudden whims of other people’s decisions in order to work at all. I have a bit of sympathy with the figure of 1.4 mill (ONS 2014) people estimated to be on ‘zero hours’ contracts. When people panic buy, I imagine all those folks working security jobs and shelf stacking will be asked to work an extra and additional day. It’s the easy response to say that these so-called ‘zero hours’ contracts are being overused but I suspect it’s for things like sudden influx of customers where it really can be beneficial.

 

I also hear (and I am uncertain of how much credence to give this) that many people in management at retail wish to ‘invent’ a UK Black Friday (which was introduced last year, and implemented more this year) to deal with their own difficult revenues. In other words, people on the whole are spending less and going other places to do so. From that perspective, having a pretense of a black friday probably wants to help what is usually a busy period of the retail year but in recent years has been disappointing. And now, there’s the personal story.

 

We are all slaves to spending

 

Michael was spending the best part of friday watching some of the YouTube uploaded footage of how Black Friday is observed in the USA, by apparent fighting, stampedes and in one video, a use of a taser. Michael mumbled something about how this is the Hobbesian State of Nature in a world of actual government and statehood, and attempted to make some deep point that the role of the state was to fundamentally prevent the disorder of the Hobbesian state of nature, and as such contractarian accounts need to find some way to account for how actual limited forms of chaos exists in a world of authority (the state). Michael also said something to the effect of ‘Black Friday shows who we really are in extremis’.

 

I was sort of in agreement except for two things. I largely ignored black friday except via a whatsapp chat group which included Michael’s weird Hobbesian reference and diatribe about conspicuous consumption. I just went by my busy day as I normally would.

 

-Then I got a text from my sister – telling me that she wants a DVD of Season One of Something or Other* made by HBO and that ‘it’s probably cheaper on Black Friday’. It wasn’t, but I got it for her anyway.

 

-Then she texted me again – telling me the DVD is for my Brother In Law and she actually wants a shawl from Cos*. Ugh, okay sis I’ll get it for you.

 

-Then when I was at the website, I saw a nice deal on a nice little number that I was meaning to buy anyway. So I bought it. I’ve ended up spending £70 already. But I did save £40 and I got free delivery.

 

What black friday seems to reveal is that we live in a world where we both seem to need and we indeed want, many of the things that are put on a discount or offer. By buying, we consent to perpetuate whatever it is many people find objectionable about consumerism. This is very much an issue of choice, and it isn’t the retailers or the customers or the economy that really wins out. It’s our choice. Notably consider how choice varies from another word choice such as liberty or agency.I suppose because I already buy into the notion of Christmas that I also invariably found a £40 saving so attractive on things I probably was going to buy anyway. I feel utterly disappointed in my ability to launch a critique at Black Friday.

 

As I was checking my RSS feeds just earlier, I got a pop up notice from Feedly which said there was a ‘black friday’ sale of 20% off a yearly pro subscription. I’d lie if I wasn’t attracted by that. But there is a massive and perhaps inevitable liberal hypocrisy in paying for a black friday only deal on Feedly, and then using feedly to read blogs criticising black friday and how problematic it is. Even though my shopping was in fact online, I do feel I contributed my part to the social reality that larger encompasses the mobs crashing into superstores and people rushing to buy the latest so-and-so  for such and such a discount.

I think the moral if there is any is this: I spent £70 on stuff but think/was told I made a saving of £40. That is the meaning of Black Friday.

 

* names have been changed

 

Keeping the memory, or “My old hardware is a burden to me”

My hard drive

My old hard drive – we’ve had some great memories together

The subject of this blog post started with a little pile next to my table. There’s a printer, a scanner and a generic box (of unsorted documents that graduates to sorted/processed documents) which sits right next to my desk. I have an 2006 Canon Pixma printer, which supposedly was designed to print photograph sized prints in photograph quality I used it a few times but I found that it ran out of ink very quickly. I argued this point with my dad that it is not economical to own such a printer that barely prints maybe 2 dozen prints for the cost of £30-40 colour prints, when you can get prints for 20p or so each these days. As such, for this reason, and due to the other reason that I have a smaller and more efficient portable printer (its so portable it fits in a shoe bag), my once fancy Pixma printer is now obsolete. Also thanks to great retailers like Boots and other such photo processing serviciers (sic).

 

This Pixma printer is a 1ft square or so heavy box of plastic that just fills up space. It feels like emotional clutter due to its unuse. I feel guilty that a fancy printer is essentially surplus to requirement. I then thought about the 2 xbox 360s that I have above a cupboard. I bought two because one of them was in disrepair and I felt a strong urge to get an xbox by christmas of some time maybe a year or two ago, in order to have a ‘halo marathon’ (a tradition among a few friends of mine). Now that the old Xbox 360 is obsoleted by the new Xbox One(tm); I have more tat that is just gathering dust. I also have Xbox accessories, games, pads and even a neat little wifi adaptor. If these things were universal for say, a PC or other device I surely could have found use for it.

 

Thinking about my old technology brought me to a deeper and deeper rabbit hole. I’ve got meters upon meters of USB cables all scrunched up in my desk. I have endless earphones that don’t work or half work, or are ugly that came free with something. I have AC adaptors for things I don’t even remember owning and some of these things are not even 10 years old yet I feel like I am one of those people on the hoarder TV shows.

 

All this technology finds itself obsolete very quickly and it makes me sad. Lately I’ve been thinking things like: I have been using my USB keyboard for 8 years now, I should get rid of it; perhaps I should get rid of my USB speakers – they have served their time.

 

Lately I bought a tablet and a phone. I have a reputation among my friends for having ‘old technology’, and I am often reluctant to stop using something simply because a newer version of x has come out, or that the newer version does more things. Having said that, I am not exactly a Luddite. I sometimes  used my older laptops as experiments in Linux and in overclocking and working beyond their original specifications and default software settings. I’ve found  that some laptops that I bought have hardware specs that purposely lock out other operating systems. The Xbox 360 and other consoles notably have measures to detect if a device has been modified and once noticed, locks out and bans the user/machine for what I think is an open and inquisitive exploration into a piece of software.

 

People should not feel guilty for ‘hacking’ into their store bought hardware and using technology in ways beyond the original company’s design for them. I’ve seen creative mp3 players installed with windows xp just to see if it can be done, and games consoles with fancy lighting. I think that such modifications are an ode of respect to the companies that made these devices, and show a sense of openness and imaginative creativity on part of the consumer, that makes a consumer an active participant in the commodities they buy, and exactly because of this, the things that they buy are not ‘commodities’ but enabling.

 

Products like the iPad and Windows 8 devices are said to be enabling by all the Press Releases and tech conference presentations, but only in a limited way of thinking and perceiving and using a device. I feel that there’s a political analogy here. I think about geographical space lately. In the area where I live, there are lots of shops, and lots of houses, but nothing else. There’s a public library, which had the threat of closure more than once in the past decade. However there’s not really much for anyone if you don’t have spending money or a mortgage/monthly rent. The physical space where I live is exceptionally limited in the terms set by consumption: you live, sleep, and buy.

 

For this reason I think that my local library is an amazing place. I like going to the library just to peruse the books. I see a lot of self-improvement books, a lot of books about Tamil culture (a cultural group who have a distinct presence locally) and even a few comics, graphic novels and Mangas. The library is a place where you can read magazines and newspapers at no charge and there are sometimes local Councillors having surgeries and children’s storytelling meetings there.

 

Outside of this little haven of the library is shop upon shop. The options are limited in shops: you buy, and that’s about it. This can be very isolating and exceptionally limiting to the imagination. With my group of friends we sometimes try to subvert the perception of geographical urban space by inserting a bit of humour (and confusion) to the area. One thing we like doing for example is going out in costume or wearing a horse mask, the breaching of our ascribed sense of conformity to public spaces shocks most of the public. Another thing we sometimes do is while in a moving car, play a bit of music on our instruments, usually people are amused or bemused. I think there is a significance to being bemused. It shows the possibility of other alternatives for use of that space. The ideal of art is to show an interpretation of the world differently and hopefully show that we can differently interpret the world as it is.

 

Technology is similar. Technologies are sold to us so often as things that are enabling and yet, when we are overwhelmed with it, or when we are sanctioned for using technology in an alternative way, this is hardly enabling. It saddens me that there is such limitations often built in to hardware, that limits alternative uses.

 

Another aspect of my woe about my hardware is that there’s such a waste. I’m getting rid of a few old laptops this month, and once upon a time they probably cumulatively cost £8000-9000 all together, and now I have to pay for someone to get it off my hands! All of the machines I’m getting rid of this month are not even over 10 years old. By contrast I still have some VCRs from the mid-late 1990s and they work as well as in the days in which they were used most.

 

There seems to be a turning point with old technology, certain things like a first generation Nintendo/Famicom console are lovely products in their retro glory. A friend of mine recently bought a flat and one of his ‘christening’ gifts was to set up his NES in his fancy HD big screen TV. We found that Duck Hunt, the game that uses a light gun, no longer works on new TVs, because of the way that the light gun was designed for CRTs (old style TVs) to map and track pixels. Something like a NES, a SNES or maybe even a Dreamcast, are seen as retro-tastic mementos of a golden past and childhood or teenhood or early adulthood, and yet my old laptops which are highly more sophisticated technically than games consoles, and my printers and USB accessories have been made to be obsolete by the successors.

 

Old games consoles from the 80s and 90s are quaint bits of retro, yet consoles from the 2000s are a heavy burden, because the new generation of consoles are basically the same in functionality – but do more! I think that the same cannot be said for the transition between say, the NES and the N64 – they do vastly different things and enable vastly different possibilities. However between say the PS3 and PS4 – they are basically the same machine where one does vastly more than the other but there is no qualitative transition of gaming or thinking or concept.

 

I would consider this way of consuming computer games and hardware to be in line with the critical Adorno view of late capitalist culture. Like Adorno I think that the transitions to newer technologies and the pressures to take up things like tablets and HD televisions; Blu-Rays, Tivos, 4G and cloud services are difficult to avoid to function in the modern world, but it is highly wasteful and makes things obsolete very quickly. I really love my new tablet computer at the moment, but I know there will be a day when it becomes hurrendously outdated and obsolete compared to what comes in the future.

 

What can we do about this? I feel like this is the open question that I cannot quite answer yet. I think this is the interesting open question of our culture. How do we find ways of opposing the trend of creating so much waste, while keeping modern? One thing I have done is that I’ve opened up my old laptops and taken various chips out and I’m going to re-use some of the hard drives and play with the RAM cards and explore the processor chipsets in the same child like way that I used to break things to see how they worked. One other reason I kept some of my old hard drives and processors are that they are a physical memento, a sentimental trinket that looks cool kept in my room, but they are also my, if you will excuse the amphiboly, memories.

Consumption and survival

Lately I’ve been reading Thorsten Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’. This has been as part of my general reading list. My general reading list consists of everything from about Aristotle to Confucius up to about Philip K. Dick. I have a big list of books to read, and that doesn’t include new books or journals, and I have said to myself jokingly but half seriously that it will probably take most of my life to read them. Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure class’ (henceforth: Leisure) is one of them.

Veblen’s Leisure was introduced to me in first year sociology. I then found that it was referenced by a few people who talk about subcultures, consumption and even a few economists. Veblen’s Leisure is said to be one of the first serious works of Sociology, when the academic discipline was at its burgeoning stage. Veblen’s initial part of Leisure consists in a pseudo-anthropological thesis, about how human communities have moved from a base stage of co-operation in order to survive, this involves a division of labour oriented towards fulfilling necessary tasks towards human survival, the later parts of the book, which I shall touch on in this post concern how when the human community is affluent enough, reaches a stage where items are produced and goods are procured that are less about survival, but status.

I think it must have been Veblen who conceptualised the term Conspicuous Consumption. The notion that we spend our money and use certain goods just for the sake of using and obtaining them. There is no need about certain items in the way that we may need sustenance or shelter or warmth, but we use things for a sense of pleasure. Society had reached a point by Veblen’s period where a greater number of people engaged in this conspicuous consumption.

So what is an example of conspicuous consumption? Veblen gives some very interesting and odd instances. Women are conspicuous consumption objects. By that, I take him to mean, the furnishing of women’s wants (by men, and the women themselves), in terms of makeup, fancy outfits and so forth.The status of having affluence can be indicated by a male partner looking very ornate. I think there’s an interesting dimension of objectification here, women in this courtly sense are portrayed as arm candy accessories and confer status. The more one Victorian can spend on his wife, the greater sense of upper class sensibility can be accorded to him. Women are treated instrumentally in this sense of conspicuous consumption.

Another aspect of conspicuous consumption offered by Veblen is horse racing. The pursuit of going to see horse races, betting on them, to be seen at the races and even the cultivation and sponsoring of race horses. These are eccentric 19thC examples, but I can see how it still resounds today. Consider for instance how people pride themselves in an ever so bourgeois way on their book shelf. As a way not of showing their intellectual prowess (although it is under the pretense of doing so), but indicating fundamentally how useless their sense of interests are in the wider scheme of human survival. To have a bookshelf seems to suggest that you are not hungry or destitute in life. That said, half of my book collection is in a shed at the moment because I life in a small place, I fear my Aristotle will suffer a fate worse than the burning of Alexandria’s library: winter damp.

The pursuit of social activities such as going to the pub, drinking alcohol for pleasure (instead of sustenance), theatre, gaming, gigging or even shopping when one has enough clothes, all show our obsession with consuming beyond need. I think that the frame of conspicuous consumption is a good analytical tool, I understand it has been used as such in economic research. There is apparently a legacy that Veblen has for economics beyond sociology, which is interesting for a sociologist to have such a legacy.

Veblen’s conspicuous consumption is something that has come to my mind lately, because it is essentially the pursuit of status, and expressing to social others that one lives towards a financial and material means that they produce enough for survival that they can spend their time and money on leisure. Anyone who lives in a country with poor economic growth right now can see this isn’t necessarily the case. Resources are spent on both leisure and survival, even when we don’t have enough to fully cope with the latter. Economic conditions are making life difficult for many families, business and individuals, but the culture of leisure pursuits and conspicuous consumption is not changing in accord, if anything, it’s exploding even more.

Leisure seems to be the outlet, the lightning rod of the frustrations from struggling to make ends meet. Industrialisation has shown that its possible to live in a way that sustains survival, but the post-industrial reverses this trend due to wider economic factors, but leaves the economic system of conspicuous consumption in tact. We still have ‘industries’ that work towards consumption and away from need, it may be the case that for many people, the presence of these industries provide jobs and a means of survival. There isn’t quite the equilibrium in today’s climate that Veblen saw that there was in his description. But maybe it wasn’t the case either that humanity had reached a point where its survival was guaranteed for all either, but rather conspicuous consumption highlighted an upper and middle class. One thing that is certainly true today, is that conspicuous consumption is encouraged for all economic groupings. To the point, I would say, of undermining other issues of importance.

I’ve come to think about consumption in other ways lately. Thanks to Transition Town Tooting hosting earlier in the summer a series of discussion groups called ‘Carbon Conversations’. I came to think about consumption in relation to sustainability and environmental impact. One of the themes addressed in the talks by many people was the concern about the way their decisions as consumers have an impact upon the kind of world they want to have. Consumption therefore has a much deeper dimension in relation to survival. It is not an opposition between conspicuous consumption and survival, but a relation on how our mass decisions as consumers (for instance, consuming beef products which has a high carbon footprint, or driving a car) impacts on wider global issues.

Michael