Category Archives: Commodification

A Mass Market of Individuals

Shhh, I’m not really here.

Yesterday I listened to the latest episode of Note to Self, which investigated a tech startup called “AltSchool.” Founded by a former Google executive, AltSchool is “disrupting” elementary school by catering to each student’s educational profile and learning styles, tracked and measured using surveillance technology. Preliminary results seem promising, with highly engaged children partly directing their own learning, all with the help of their handy tablets loaded with personalized curricula.

The episode touches on many implications of this controversial model, and I’d be interested in an entire series on this enticing and alarming incubator. For one thing, the consumers (perhaps more aptly, beta-testers) are children, an ethical grey area the show doesn’t get into. Host Manoush Zomorodi and NPR education reporter Anya Kamanetz do highlight the fact that these beta-testers are not representative of the demographic realities of their communities, and question the business model of an educational institution that has to answer to shareholders. For his part, founder Max Ventilla argues that children should be allowed a period of no-holds-barred wonderment, and questions the idea that the world is a terrible place that kids need to be prepared for.

What stopped me in my tracks was the whole idea of personalized education.

When every child’s every unique preference and need is catered to so consistently, how do they learn to be part of a group? To compromise their unique needs with those of others? What happens to social norms in such a population? Do we rebuild them from a ground made of disparate special snowflakes, creating social norms from a cacophony of difference? I can see that working, I suppose. After all, that is what many coalitions attempt.

This can get into the dicey area of identity politics. The concerns of marginalized people who aren’t served by the status quo are important to take seriously. I admit that it can be easier for me to conform to existing social norms than it is for some people. Society and its norms should be questioned and challenged if society is to become egalitarian. That’s not what I’m trying to get at here. I’m not saying social norms shouldn’t change to reflect the lived realities of the many types of people who make up a civil society. I’m simply wondering how children will learn social norms in the first place if they’re not taught to forgo their personal preferences in favor of the needs of the larger group. Without that guiding principle, we’d risk social chaos.

But maybe my alarm is off-base, and what really troubles me is that so many “solutions” to social problems are increasingly coming at things from an individual perspective. That and the fact that the organizations piloting these solutions are venture capital-backed tech startups that exist to turn a profit. (I do so wish they’d stop meddling.)

Pernicious individualization strikes me as a dangerous marketing ploy, as a symptom of a consumer culture so invested in getting people to think of themselves as special that they’ll buy anything to prove it, including a personalized education. This is a tech start-up after all. The same type of company that got us to go for a car service that exploits workers and dinner boxes that produce mountains of waste. It’s personal convenience at the expense of the public good. We’re allowing ourselves to get distracted from our collective consciousness of the structural problems that create symptoms like ineffectual schools.

As the individualization trend grows and consumerism takes over what were once public services (e.g., education) what becomes of our society? I maintain that a certain measure of conformity is critical to living and working with other people. And that systematic change, not micro-disruptions, are crucial to positive social transformation.

So enough with the money-grubbing disruption, the expensive band-aids that bill themselves as cost-effective lifestyle enhancements. Let’s instead identify our common needs and mold our institutions into something that serves them.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Technology

Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.

Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.

As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.

It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.

With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.

I must do better than younger me, for future us.

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Filed under Childhood, Commodification, Gender Trouble, Power, Racism

Half-Baked Motherhood: Compromise & the Dough Boy

There’s a Pillsbury commercial that has been nagging at me to rail on it since late 2014. Here we are, three months later. No time like the present. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a clip of this commercial, so a description based on my memory of having seen it once will have to suffice.

A Commercial Mother encounters the three members of her family as she makes her way through the house. She tries in vain to get the attention of each:

  • Child #1 cannot hear for the headphones that keep him glued to the TV screen on which he’s playing a video game.
  • Child #2 charges down the stairs, nearly running into Mom as she texts on her smartphone.
  • Husband is changing the channels on the TV in the kitchen.

Instead of snatching the devices away from these rude family members like a sane person would, Commercial Mom sighs with an exasperation meant only to underline her infinite maternal patience. There’s even a smile creeping into the corners of her mouth. Oh, family members–can’t live with ’em, can’t get ’em to acknowledge your presence. 

Suddenly, a solution!

We see her pull a steaming sheet of something presumably delicious out of the oven. One by one, each family member unplugs themselves, the irresistible aromas drawing them to the dining room. The closing shot sees them all sitting together, face to face at last. “Nothing brings them to the table like Pillsbury.”

My eyes almost got stuck in the back of my head. I’m really glad I only saw this commercial once, or Feminist Rage and also a very high ophthalmology bill.

As alluded to previously, what I had hoped this mother had done was confiscate the offending devices that were turning her family members into offensive people. Nothing brings ’em to the table like dropping all their technology down the garbage disposal. Also, if we’re being reasonable about things, maybe they could have had a family discussion about why it’s a problem when you don’t acknowledge someone who is trying to talk to you. But no. Commercial Mom gives in to the socio-technological forces swirling around her and tries a different tactic to reach her goal of familial engagement.*

The message of the ad is if you can’t beat ’em, bake for them. Sacrifice. Work harder for what you want. Embrace your family’s foibles. Aren’t people these days a riot, with their technology and lack of interpersonal skills? Why, we should reward them with baked goods–and not just any baked goods, but par-baked goods that make your life of thankless sacrifice a little easier, more palatable. To get what you want–which is, apparently, not respect, but rather the physical presence of your family–you need to meet them more than half-way. You need to meet them half-baked.

What might be most troubling about the existence (and persistence) of this representation of American motherhood and winking maternal “wisdom” is

  1. Many mothers (parents, really) must identify with this representation
    and
  2. These women haven’t yet pushed back to a degree that would manifest itself in market research

Ads are not a mirror of the real world, instead tending to lag slightly behind cultural trends and social mores. But they also serve to reinforce kernels of truth in the collective lived experience. Too much money is riding on the ability of this ad and its representation of modern family life to resonate with its target market for it NOT to have sufficient market research behind it. Market research that told the Pillsbury executives that a significant chunk of American parents feel like the mother in this commercial. A feeling of futility that only our product can alleviate!

Parents in general will likely identify with the mother–so the market research would have shown. You want to be a close-knit family, have quality moments with your children, but modern technology is getting in the way. Luckily, Pillsbury is here to save the day, offering up a product as a solution to the problem the ad offers up on a platter.

This convenient confection is just the sticky substance that will keep your family unit together. If you value your family–if you’re a good mother–you will buy it. Motherhood is a goldmine of social anxieties,and Pillsbury knows it as well as we do.

So instead of the mother laying the smackdown in this commercial–which wouldn’t really present a problem that a Pillsbury product could solve–and teaching her family about the importance of NOT BEING RUDE and RESPECTING OTHER PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY THE PEOPLE WHO GIVE YOU THE LUXURY OF A MIDDLE-CLASS EXISTENCE…we get get the tired trope of sacrificial maternal compromise, repackaged & refrigerated for those struggling to parent the iGeneration.

*I am not making judgments about real-life parenting decisions. In situ, I’m sure plenty of great parents pick their battles and exhale their anger instead of making every moment a teaching one. In this deconstruction I am taking issue with the way the mass-media represents motherhood and family life as a social structure in which the mother is disrespected and then rewards her family for their rudeness. A representation that holds up motherhood as self-sacrificing and somehow still rewarding. A representation that holds up as relate-able, emulate-able, and Good a person who takes shit and bakes it into cookies.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Technology

Walgreens Commercial Normalizes the Objectification of Women Using a Young Boy and Christmas

Briefly:

There’s a commercial running for Walgreens Pharmacy, claiming it’s a great place to find gifts for the holidays. Leaving this insane claim and any deep analysis of commodification aside, I’d like to talk about what the commercial does visually to make the objectification of women seem cute and normal. The commercial centers around a young elementary school boy who is giving gifts to various female classmates, all awe-struck by his shopping prowess. The young ladies man then turns his gift-giving attention to his teacher–at the same time that the camera turns its attention to her rear end as she writes something on the board. The boy gives her the gift, and she walks away. Cut to a shot of him smiling in the direction that she walked away, causing us, the viewer, to surmise that he is watching her walk away. Like a sleaze. We are meant to think he’s getting a good look at her ass.

And the commercial frames this as funny-cute. As normal. It implies that this boy has the right to do this because he bought her a gift. It ignores, or makes light of, the inappropriate of this in several ways:

1. On an age level, by attributing sexual motives to a prepubescent boy

2. On a gender equality level, by reducing a woman to her sexualized body part that is ogled

3. On a power and ownership level, where the buyer/gift-giver is accorded rights to transgress social decorum

Ugh. Just, ugh. All of this is what is wrong with our culture. That all of this gross sexism and scary commercialism is wrapped in a pretty, innocent bow of holiday generosity.

My ass.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Commodification, Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Gender Trouble, Uncategorized

My Politeness is Not for Sale, and You Couldn’t Afford it, Anyway!: A Customer Service Rant

Customer service is one of the worst social interactions many of us engage in because it’s almost always a sham. And we know it. Knowing how fake the interaction is makes it that much more difficult (for me) to participate in sincerely.* 

In a customer service social interaction, politeness is for sale. Along with the (implied) purchase of a consumer good or a service is a built-in benefit of pleasantness on the part of the service professional. It’s a simple commodity-exchange relationship, but (in the U.S. especially) we expect to sugar-coat that with a false sense of cheer. In a normal social interaction, one not so directly contingent on the exchange of money, politeness is something that is almost earned: if one person in the interaction is polite, the other is more likely to be polite as well. But they are not obligated to be–no one is obligated to be. In contrast, during a customer service interaction, the promised payment of money obligates only the service professional to be polite. That person’s demeanor is being manipulated by money.

MY POLITENESS IS NOT FOR SALE! It SHOULD NOT be for sale! That drains politeness of much of its value, and maybe this is why society is becoming more rude in general. If we’ve commodified everything (see Strasser 2003), turning much of our dealings with strangers into fake social interactions that only obligate one party to be polite, and both parties know this politeness is fake because it’s being bought, then why should anyone value politeness in and of itself? Niceness becomes a perpetual sham, and no one will know how to feel it or genuinely be polite, anymore. A stretch, okay, but I see kids running around acting entitled to everything without even having to act polite or gracious, nevermind actually feel those things. And their parents let them! Is our consumer culture, which hinges on various commodity-exchange relationships like customer service interactions, ultimately to blame for this general slide into rudeness? Look me in the eye when we’re talking and put that goddamn phone away!

My main point is that customer service social interactions make me angry because they are so fake, and because they put a price–albeit unquantified–on the manner in which the service professional engages with a fellow member of society. Except, of course, the service professional is not the consumer’s equal, because the consumer has been taught to feel entitled to the service professional’s robotic smile and fake politeness. The service professional is a slave to capitalism’s social consequences. Their behavior is devoid of free will and instead dictated by the possibility of acquiring capital from the customer.

I say it’s time we called shenanigans, and started treating people well no matter what. Alternately, if you’re a service professional and a customer is rude to you, you should be able–even expected–to be rude in kind if the spirit moves you, because why should you have to take it just because the customer is the one with the money? It’s likely not going into your pocket, anyway, but that of the company you work for. And I feel it’s more important that we teach each other the value of engaging nicely with everyone regardless of their social position within a customer service interaction. Regardless of who holds the money, and where it might be spent.

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*This is why my smart, rude customers will complain about my sarcastic attitude. They don’t appreciate that I’m multitasking by trying to teach them a lesson in how to behave and being metapragmatic by commenting on the fakeness of our social interaction even as we are engaging in it. So I guess they’re really not that smart–or they’d rather focus on how rude I’m being because they think they’re entitled to my smile in spite of their disrespectful attitudes because they’re ostensibly paying to be there. Which is bullshit. My attitude is contingent on yours, not how much money you make in a year, who you are, or how much you’re dropping on this visit to our store. Asshole.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary