Ramblings on consumption

We think of consumption as part of the very stuff of modern life. I clear out items on eBay. My Mum and Dad have boxes of things unopened since they moved house in 1981. A lady who lived up the road who died last year had people working for five days to clear out the things she had hoarded. The house had been packed with items from ceiling to roof.

The role that consumption plays varies but taps into deep emotional ties. I felt both an emotional journey that I can only equate to grief and a certain release on getting rid of my record collection. I moved country for work and the bulk of it had to go. What was more distressing was not being able to make sure that it went to a good home at the time. It had defined me, brought me joy and latterly had been a weight that I only felt by its subsequent absence.

Consumption and identity are also intertwined.

In my pre-internet days you could get a sense of someone by visiting their sitting room or their bedroom.

  • What kind of books did they read?
  • What posters or pictures did they have?
  • Was there sports scarves, or signed shirts?
  • Family photographs
  • Taxidermied animals in either rural or ‘hunting, shooting or fishing’ households
  • What kind of videos did they have?
  • Where they a gamer?
  • What CDs, vinyl and cassettes did they have?
  • Did they have a system of hi-fi separates? What were the components like? Did they have headphones?

You were able to build up a picture in your head about the person, their tastes and some historic touch points.

Much of this now remains out of sight in the sitting room with the rise of cloud based services. But the picture is still here, though you will need a screen to see it.

For many people homes are a mix of the digital and the analogue. Some young people may adopt analogue items for ‘authenticity’ in their lives. For older people its the archeology of their lives. Photos not converted to digital scans. Music that had meaning or was at a certain stage in their life. Souvenirs from holidays.

If I look at my own parents:

  • They were more passionate about active collection of music in the 1960s before they settled down. They have finally got rid of a Philips mono turntable in plastic that hadn’t worked for years and a Sony reel to reel tape player. Both devices chosen for their luggabilty rather than quality. They had lived transcient young work lives, working away from home and living in digs
  • My Dad had spare time from shift work that he used to read a mix of reference books and fiction from the 1950s – the early 1980s. Since then he mostly reads caravan and crafting books
  • My Dad has a vast amount of tools in various states of repair that he accumulated. From when he started his apprenticeship to electronic meters bought this year
  • My Mum has a mix of cookery books from the 1950s to the 1990s and notebooks stuffed with clippings from magazines of recipes. In the notebooks are hand scribbled recipes that she exchanged with friends
  • They have carpets and stools that they crafted from kits in the 1960s before multi-channel TVs

With time, more hasn’t mean’t better ‘quality’ consumption. Technology has provided us with more reliable electronics. Unless you are a hi-fi buff you are unlikely to know about the fragility of valve electronics or the weight of discrete solid state circuits.

Globalisation has brought consumption of more ‘just good enough’ products. My parents still have some of the furniture that they bought when they got married. It isn’t Vitra or great Danish design, its mass producted items of its time. But the quality of the construction and materials contrasts with flat pack furniture bought later.

Less consumption seems to have had a number of sides to it:

  • More conscious choice on quality. You couldn’t just order another on Amazon
  • Greater focus on curation of items
  • Less clothes but of a better quality
  • A macro view on ‘need’, rather than the micro view defined by the now

You had the vintage well tailored tweed jacket or furniture that had been in the house for generations. In years to come what will all the delapidated Billy bookshelves and tchotchke fridge magnets say about us? Maybe this is a good part of the authenticity at the centre of Peter York’s ‘Hipster Handbook‘?

I started to think about these things following a death in the family. My uncle lived in the ancestral home; which is a small farm in the west of Ireland. I had spent a good deal of my childhood there with him and other relatives. Life had got in the way of going back in person and there had been bigger gaps in time to my visits than I thought.

Going back to the farm brought thoughts about consumption into sharp focus for me. My Uncle’s approach to consumption was very different to mine and likely yours as a reader.

  • He never owned a car or combustion engine-powered farm machinery. He hired in contractors and machinery when it was needed
  • As a child I had played amongst decaying wrought iron horse drawn equipment, that would have been used before the widespread use of tractors
  • I can remember when electricity was installed
  • Had a modern television but didn’t use it. He actively preferred the radio as his media of choice
  • He had a solid fuel cooker that provided central heating for the house. He also had an electric cooker and microwave oven, but refused to use the microwave
  • His music collection had been gifted to him by family over the years. They assumed that he liked local artists playingIrish traditional music
  • He regularly read a local paper, but owned no books bar a booklet on the value of notes and coins
  • He had never travelled for leisure, but had been gifted souvenirs from my cousins. These came from Donegal to Dubai
  • Presents that he had been given decades ago remained in a drawer in case he would need them, from ties to aftershave
  • The family had tried to force him to have a cellphone and he only relented when he was in hospital and a neighbour gifted it to him
  • His idea of interactive gaming was a Benson & Hedges branded deck of playing cards with four people around a table

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His house remained unchanged from when my Grandmother had lived there. There wasn’t his ‘footprint’ in the house at all. He lived in many respects a pre-industrial agrian approach to life. Time moves at the pace of the farm work rather than the clock. Your mark on the world was in the continued existence of the homestead. Perhaps ownership of the land provided the ‘weight’ that mass consumerism provides for many of the rest of us?

This brought into sharp focus for me the newness and ‘abnormality’ of modern consumerism.

In contrast, my Grandmother had been more modern in her attitude to consumerism. She loved the television. She got rid of old wooden chairs that would need the occasional coat of paint for black powder coated steel and vinyl cushion seats.

Into her late 80s she loved DVDs of traditional Irish music performances. A tape of electronica and early rap that I made at the age of 15 so she could understand what I was into at the time was a step too far for her.

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Why social media and selfies are filling Hong Kong’s young women with self-doubt | South China Morning Post – 10 per cent of women in the 16 to 24 age group attributed their negative feelings to social media, while 31 per cent said it was due to friends and 28 per cent pointed to health. For older women, only 5 per cent cited social media, 18 per cent said friends and 40 per cent named health as an issue – survey of 1,010 respondents by think tank MWYO. Sample size is a little low

Ric Flair aka Nature Boy the veteran American wrestler from WWE appears in these ads. I love it for the nostalgia if nothing else

Will China Let Google Back in? – MacroPolo – not likely, because China doesn’t need Alphabet.

This is how Dutch police know you’re buying drugs online – interesting how transactions that don’t go through escrow can be compromised and how the police seem to be getting good intelligence on where the servers are located. This could be conventional police work, bad server set up or a compromise in the infrastruce of the dark web

What does QAnon have to do with leftist Italian authors Wu Ming — Quartz – fascinating read

Five for Friday | 五日(星期五) | 금요일에 다섯 가지

Things that made my day this week:

In Japan, 24/7 convenience stores play a similar role to what supermarkets have in the west. They do groceries, allow utility and mobile payments and provide other services like faxing or photocopying. They offer free wi-fi and air conditioning in hot weather. There are an essential part of of Japanese life and there is a ‘combini-culture’ around them. Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Fragment Design has taken a good deal of influence from combini culture for ‘The Conveni’ retail concept. It includes processed food, bandanas in sandwich packs, towels packaged like onigiri rice balls and sweat shirts in snack packets.

conveni

If you can’t get to Tokyo, you can still look at their e-store.

Michael Gove famously said that with regards to Brexit people were tired of experts. Obviously discussions between men in a pub is the antithesis of expert discussions. So here is a podcast with a couple of knowledgeable people in a pub

Lippincott were working on a Toys R Us rebrand that the company couldn’t implement. I don’t know if design could have saved Toys R Us, but the work is really nice.

Aphex Twin launched a new EP; there were posters around the world and a fantastic video by Weirdcore. Warning the video will affect people with epilepsy

Egyptian Lover picks his favourite Roland TR-808 songs – amazing listening. Some of this brought me back to my early teenage years.

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Samsung pledges to invest $22B in AI, 5G and other emerging technologies – SiliconANGLEplan to invest $22 billion in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence over the next three years. The effort will be driven primarily by the conglomerate’s Samsung Electronics Co Ltd arm, which makes its popular mobile devices. Last quarter, the handset maker saw profits decline for the first time in nearly two years due to stagnating smartphone sales. Investing more in emerging technologies could help Samsung generate new growth on the long term

Save Sarah Jeong! And Kevin Williamson, Quinn Norton, and Joy Reid Too | WIRED – my comment: I agree that Ms Jeong has a right to an opinion. She has a right to a bad day. However when she weighed into the Naomi Wu / Vice Media dispute; her contribution damaged some of the feminist and progressive viewpoints that she herself supports. As an international Wired subscriber I find it difficult to support her particularly aggressive form of American privilege. Ms Jeong used her skill in rhetoric to hide her lack of expertise in the legal and online social environment of China.

‘Hipster kryptonite’: will CDs ever have a resurgence? | Music | The Guardian – interesting read. I have listened to CDs and have them, but preferred to DJ with vinyl for tactile reasons. The article fails to ask whats next. We’ve got a generation coming through with Spotify with a more passive, casual relationship to music that we haven’t seen before. There has always been people who liked music but bought few if any recordings. We haven’t seen it on the scale that we see with the Spotify generation. Music becomes a utility like water, electricity or mobile data. Since music tends to be about playlists now the artist’s brand becomes less important. Festivals provide the buzz of live music for generation Spotify but they can dip in and out moving from one tent to another. They won’t support live acts in local concert halls, go to local clubs to support local DJs or have eclectic musical libraries

The UK Top 40 will never be the same | British GQ – For a stream to qualify as a sale, it has to play for at least 30 seconds. Most listeners will abandon anything too jarringly different before then, so there’s an incentive for artists to draw on a small pool of bankable writers, producers and styles. “I call it the shit-click factor,” says Masterton. “If a record is too challenging, then people will say, ‘What’s this? It’s shit,’ and click onto the next one. There used to be room on the charts for something dynamic and exciting such as the Arctic Monkeys. I can’t see the circumstances right now where that could happen.”

Rock is the new jazz and vinyl’s misleading revival: 5 things I’ve learned as Guardian music editor | The Guardian  – Technology has vastly increased what record companies know about listeners and their listening habits, just as it has increased what newspapers know about their readers and their reading habits. And the results of this – on both parts – can be pernicious. At our end, it’s the reason why we get complaints about endless stories about Adele and Beyoncé and Kanye West. Why do we run them? Because people read them. Whereas very few people read stories about the latest underground band we want to rave about. And in music, that knowledge has resulted in commercial music, more than ever before, being made to a formula

Tymbals – #edge @growth – interesting online tool

ITV joins Hollywood giants to back video streaming service for mobiles | The Guardian – ok what am I missing here, streaming services are already on mobile and also offer side loading to deal with network quality issues

Say Hello to the New Editor | The new Gutenberg editing experience – interesting changes that will make themes less rigid

The Internet of Stupid Things

A more charitable phrase for what many consumers call the Internet of Shit. Yes lots of products can be internet enabled, but should they be? There is a mix of challenges:

  • Products that are internet enabled but shouldn’t be – the Happy Fork or the Griffin Smart Toaster being classic examples. I found the Griffin Smart Toaster particularly disappointing as the company’s products such as the PowerMate are generally really good
  • Products that would be benefit from tech, but shouldn’t rely on the the cloud. I’d argue that Nest would fit in this category where cloud outages could have serious impacts on the consumer

It is interesting to see that Li & Fung (who are famous for global supply chain management provided to western brands and retailers) are involved in this. The qualitative design research they did on skiing wearables for a client – which begs the question of what value Li & Fung’s client brings to the table.