What are the hidden histories of the commodities that surround us? Can network technologies serve and defend the public against private interest?
We take a trip down to the SupUrmarket and go Ur exploring for worlds that are pregnant with possibility, just behind the barcode.
There are three dominant, and largely opposed, conceptions of technology and modernity, this century and last: a romantic and dystopian one, as expressed in the writings of Heidegger, Weber, and recently Foucault, Baudrillard and Paul Virilio; a futurist utopian one, as in the followers of Saint-Simon and Marshall McLuhan; and a dialectical one, as in the writings of Marx, Benjamin and Williams. The first two positions have tended to dominate popular thinking on technology, reinforcing perceptions of technological advance as either a 'good thing' or a 'bad thing', as if technological development were solely a matter of technical transformation, and not embedded in the conflict between the productive forces and relations of production.
J.Roberts ''Art of Interruption" p.216/7
Enlightening the Load
Last summer whilst walking through one of the many giant supermarkets that have come to dominate large areas of every town and city in the UK, I was intrigued to find the introduction of personal scanners for the customers who are part of the stores 'reward' card scheme, these allow the customer themselves to scan their own food, and on completion of their shopping, pass through a special till. This system is called Shop and Go because in theory the customer can shop at greater speed and convenience. The introduction of such technology arises from the increasing competition between supermarkets in the UK. Each store is having to find more innovative ways to attract, and more importantly keep, customers coming through the doors; week in and week out.
The Shop and Go system struck me as an interesting development, because it personalises the relationship that a person has to the store when shopping and creates a situation where the shopper becomes quite literally an extension of the supermarkets computer system, where their choices can be tracked and used for ordering and marketing purposes, and so in a strange way the shopper 'works' for the store, or rather the store's computer system. The mundaneness of shopping we have to do, week in, week out can be seen more clearly and directly as labour.
I decided to look at the possibilities to subvert this situation and create a system which used the universal product bar-coding system as an entry point into allowing a user to access, via a mobile network, economic, social, political, environmental and health information on products and companies from an external internet database, and have that information come to the user via a display on a handheld scanner. This system would help the user to act in an informed manner by bringing relevant information to the user, allowing what I call a 'situated understanding' and so therefore the store/shopper relationship is transformed from one where information is given (often without knowledge, by the shopper through their actions), to one where information is taken.
In this project the scanner is a specific object, but there is no reason, why it should not be an attachment to already existing devices, such as the pager, or mobile phone.
Foodchains – Ur politics
40 million people die each year from hunger related diseases, equivalent to over 300 jumbo jet crashes a day with no survivors. Half the passengers are children.
Kidron & Segal State of the World Atlas Penguin 1995
All social structures – for instance the economy, the state, the family, language - depend upon or presuppose social relations - which may include the social relations between capital and labour, ministers and civil servants, parents and children. The relations into which people enter pre-exist the individuals who enter into them, and whose activity reproduces or transforms them; so they are themselves structures. And it is to these structures of social relations that realism directs our attention - both as the explanatory key to understanding social events and trends and as the focus of social activity aimed at the self-emancipation of the exploited and oppressed.''
Roy Bhasker Reclaiming Reality p. 4
SupUrmarket is a critical design
Precursors to the project can be found in the work of artist/designers such as Kryzstof Wodicko- web.mit.edu/idg/homeless.html. My thanks go to Anthony Dunne, researcher in the Royal College of Art's Computer Related Design department for these leads.
project. I wanted to address the issues of how technological systems could function so as to promote democratic socialist values, rather than those of the market. As an artist, and a critical realist working on a design project, I felt that designs' strength is in the fact it produces objects that people have to interact with (in the broadest sense), this meant that the project had to be feasible despite its progressive nature, otherwise it would be too easy to dismiss as 'utopian' or 'unrealistic', hence the utilisation of the barcode system as the point of entry, turning the markets' 'mark', its weak spot, metaphorically from a closed door to an open one. Using the barcode also mitigates against counter strategies from those affected by a product such as Ur scanner, as it the barcode is a vital part commodity circulation, and cannot be easily or cheaply changed.
I was under no illusions as to how the project might run into objections, or just be ignored, but I felt that if feasible technologically then not only was there a chance to develop the ideas in a real sense, but that if it wasn't developed then this in itself was political. Benjamin's notion of the Urform (see Brand information) was the projects poetic underpinning, and like Benjamin, to see the potential within a given technology, to promote and extend the good is a political act in the face of an economic order who's tendency is to subordinate all innovation, and much design along with it, to the bottom line.
The SupUrmarket project involved extensive research into the global system of food production and the companies involved in it. Processed food production for instance, is dominated by a few multinational companies, Unilever, Mars, Nestlé and Philip Morris. Most of the well known brands are produced by these companies, irrespective of which country they are sold in. In a supermarket what appears as an abundance of choice, is in essence homogeneity, so the same corporation can be found 'competing' against itself as its products stand side by side on the shelf. Simultaneously standing in a supermarket is to be at the end of a 'foodchain' that stretches right across the globe, so that as our productivity, and therefore our alienation increases, our understanding of how that commodity got to that shelf becomes harder to ascertain.
Supermarkets themselves exert enormous influence on this process, a recent documentary on British television followed the production of Mange Tout back to the fields in Africa where it is grown, viewers of the show were witness to the spectacle of 'the man from Tesco' visiting the plantation and being treated to a display of song and dance, 'thanking' Tesco for buying their produce.
This economic imperialism works to uphold the power of multinationals against those who produce and consume, whether in the West or the Third World, so that for instance Brazil can export $4 billion worth of food a year yet 32 million of its people are malnourished.
The global supermarket Report by Christian aid 1997
Whilst in the United States the diet industry accounts for a full third of the nations food bill.
The retreat of the Left since the mid-seventies, and particularly since 1989, has resulted in a fragmented, apologetic and conservative 'radical' politics, (postmodernism in all its various guises). In the face of capital in the ascendance, the politics of consumption have dominated many movements and ideas for social change, I would argue this can be seen as a clear example of defeatism in a period of retreat, and so although the Ur scanner deals with the consumption end of production, consumption does in fact, complete the cycle of production; by reproducing the producer. The political conclusions the Ur scanner draws from this understanding is that there can be no individual solutions to collective problems, so for instance the information accessed from the database, is relational so as to link, specific situations/products/companies to a wider socio-political structure.
Ur scanner is not a device whose intention is to make individuals feel guilty about what they buy, nor say the solution is in Fair Trade, or any other such scheme. Although of course, it is not against such initiatives, it therefore departs from the majority of 'green' thinking which tends to see the problem and solution in individual consumption; as if the average consumer is as responsible, or benefits from the state of the world as much as say, Unilever, the IMF, or World Bank!
It is reasonably simple to show that social evils stare us in the face, but unfortunately the social structures that make such things possible are more complex and masked. The Ur scanners role is one of making these social structures visible so that a user may act in an informed manner to change oppressive and exploitative systems. In this context Ur scanner revolves around the dialectical movement toward a socialist consciousness involved within Marx's notion of the working class being a class 'in itself'- objectively a group of people who must sell their labour-power to live - to becoming a class 'for itself' -acting in its own interest collectively as the majority.
As a design project SupUrmarket meant considering who the product would be for, and why they would want it. To accomplish this meant considering how a 'product' such as the scanner could be 'marketed' to people. My experience as a political activist, plus interviews with users makes me highly critical of the notion that there are people who 'political' (the converted) and those who are not (the rest), rather I understand consciousness as being contradictory, a reflection of the capitalist societies that people live in, and that an active intervention can help to weave together this reified, contradictory and atomised thought, into coherent and combative activity.
Practically this meant engaging with issues that affect people on a day to day basis. For instance, I think, and I found in the user testing, that it is generally true to say that people are concerned about the safety of the food they are eating, and the conditions that the people who make that food work under, these were seen as two 'marketing' opportunities-
Concerned that the food you buy is genetically modified? Use Ur scanner to find out how safe it really is!
These issues could then be linked to a broader picture based around the consideration of why these things might be happening.
Combining these considerations with network technologies such as the internet allows for the possibility of linking radical and progressive databases of information, which could be hosted by unions, community groups, political organisations or combinations of these, promoting and maintaining a genuine, 'public sphere' to counteract the disproportionate power of corporate interest, to promote their side of the story.
3 This can be done with some skill, re: the recent advertisements in Britain by Monsanto the giant biotechnology corporation, which whilst extolling the benefits to us of genetically engineered food, supposedly allow room for 'objectivity' by inviting readers to visit the Friends of the Earth WWW site for a 'different' opinion.
To paraphrase John Roberts,
J.Roberts Art of Interruption
the task of the dialectical theorist of technology is to reconnect technological development to its possible non-instrumental uses without illusions... technological development is both the empty space of bourgeois-development-in-time, and the continually renewed projective possibility of the non-alienated use of technology, each important technological advance puts this possibility on the historical agenda.
The Same Products –
again and again and again and again...
Which brings us back to where we came in: wandering through the aisles of the local supermarket, confronted at every turn by the amassed products of collective globalised labour- an abundance of dispossession. The Ur potential of such space is clear if we look soberly at what is in front of us and dare to imagine - instead of market logic reinforcing the technological madness of the same few companies competing to sell us the same products, at artificially subsidised prices, and at a seemingly increasing risk to our health and well-being - these systems could be liberated by those now held under their sway. Ur scanner cannot hope to resolve this problem for it is indeed embedded in the future outcome of the conflict between the productive forces and relations of production, but as the world's economies spiral into an 'overproduction' crisis, Ur scanner is a 'product design' who's time has come....
The Ur Brand's values
Disclosing the Urform is key in Benjamin's utopian social theory. Where Goethe aspired to understand the metamorphosis of nature, Benjamin investigated history and the social world. He writes of Ursprung (origin), Ursprungsphänomen and Urgeschichte (primal history), not in order to assert an origin that is now left behind, but so as to stress the whirls of unredeemed potential inside present forms. Benjamin combines these ideas with the Marxist intuition that the base submits possibilities that are hampered by the superstructure, the current social relations of production.
Simultaneously this unredeemed potential is exposed as a repository of social and technological desires that should have been, and could yet be. Benjamin writes: We are only just beginning to infer exactly what forms now lying concealed within machines will be determining for our epoch.
Walter Benjamin Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der Deutschen Romantik, G.S.I.1 Suhrkamp, p78
The future lives in the present, possibility is coiled up inside actuality. The social promises of technology are mobilised by Benjamin to herald a new epoch because they exist preformed as possibilities. The idea of ur-ness is itself both actual - the true potentials of technology and of social organisation are hindered and held back - and potential - it's theorising is the re-interpretative strategy that allows revolutionary imagination to unfurl.
Esther Leslie is a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of East London, specialising in the works of Walter Benjamin.