The Business of Commodifying Consumers
Prof. Dr. Jerome Krase
Emeritus Professor, sociologist, Murray Koppelman Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
President of European Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
Allow me, as is my habit, to reformulate the questions I have been asked in this discussion of “The Ideal Consumer and Business Design Elements” to those which I am better able, and willing, to coherently answer. The first of these regards the social and economic origins of “business” on which I will more briefly comment. The second, Baudrillardian, concern is the place of people in consumer society, whose thoughts as well as their bodies are themselves consumable that I think deserves more attention. In the following pages I will try to assemble a reasonable coherent argument, or perhaps a musing, as to why and how we, as empty vessels, are filled, emptied, and filled again.
As to its origins, if we think of business simply as conducting work (i.e., engaging in labor and reaping its fruits), then it has always existed in human life, even when we may have merely hunted and gathered for ourselves. Business, however, is a peculiar and particular kind of social (and often anti-social) relationship that has evolved over human history. Unfortunately, social scientific analyses of business, employing either Marxian- or Weberian-derived perspectives, have been mostly about the morality (sociocultural evaluation) of particular systems of labor productivity and not of how they simply operate. For me and, I think, for many social scientists of my generation, business was also a somewhat alien form (terra incognita) of social engagement, as we tended not to think of academe as a “business,” and, until recently, held our own work in higher esteem or more accurately “repute.” The most recent indication of the tumble of the ivory tower into the lowest depths of our commonplace Purgatoric have been revealed by the touting of “celebrity” or rock star” professors at once-cherished universities such as Yale and Harvard. What ought to be an embarrassing glimpse into upper, privileged, echelons of American academe is provided here by Sarah Lyall and Stephanie Saul:
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — On March 26, a group of students at Yale Law School approached the dean’s office with an unusual accusation: Amy Chua, one of the school’s most popular but polarizing professors, had been hosting drunken dinner parties with students, and possibly federal judges, during the pandemic.
Ms. Chua, who rose to fame when she wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” is known for mentoring students from marginalized communities and helping would-be lawyers get coveted judicial clerkships. But she also has a reputation for unfiltered, boundary-pushing behavior, and in 2019 agreed not to drink or socialize with students outside of class. Her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, also a law professor, is virtually persona non grata on campus, having been suspended from teaching for two years after an investigation into accusations that he had committed sexual misconduct.
The dinner parties, the students said, appeared to violate Ms. Chua’s no-socializing agreement, and were evidence that she was unfit to teach a “small group” — a class of 15 or so first-year students that is a hallmark of the Yale legal education, and to which she had recently been assigned — in the fall. “We believe that it is unsafe to give Professor Chua (and her husband) such access to and control over first-year students,” an officer of Yale Law Women, a student group, wrote to the dean, Heather K. Gerken. (2021 see also Li 2009)
Getting back to the business of business; although, one can do work and carry out economic activity alone (that is; be autonomously involved in production and consumption) such activities are not generally considered business activities until we involve ourselves in social (socioeconomic) relations other persons. Therefore, to be successful in business (which is always the aim of honest, or not, businesspeople), the most important skill is to establish and maintain positive (profitable) social relationships with others. At base, business activities are exchanges between individuals or groups, and therefore we should ask, “Why do they take place?” As in “Exchange Theory,” they derive from the desire, and possibility, of getting more (benefiting) from the relationship. (Homans 1961, Blau 1964). Even contemporary philanthropy, it seems, has other-than-altruistic goals as it takes on the form of “Philocapitalism.” The Guardian reporters Carl Rhodes and Peter Bloom Commented here on the The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative created by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan:
It is easy to think of Zuckerberg as some kind of CEO hero – a once regular kid whose genius made him one of the richest men in the world, and who decided to use that wealth for the benefit of others. The image he projects is of altruism untainted by self-interest. A quick scratch of the surface reveals that the structure of Zuckerberg’s charity enterprise is informed by much more than good-hearted altruism. Even while many have applauded Zuckerberg for his generosity, the nature of this apparent charity was openly questioned from the outset.
The wording of Zuckerberg’s 2015 letter could easily have been interpreted as meaning that he was intending to donate $45bn to charity. As investigative reporter Jesse Eisinger reported at the time, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative through which this giving was to be funnelled is not a not-for-profit charitable foundation, but a limited liability company. This legal status has significant practical implications, especially when it comes to tax. As a company, the Initiative can do much more than charitable activity: its legal status gives it rights to invest in other companies, and to make political donations. Effectively the company does not restrict Zuckerberg’s decision-making as to what he wants to do with his money; he is very much the boss. Moreover, as Eisinger described it, Zuckerberg’s bold move yielded a huge return on investment in terms of public relations for Facebook, even though it appeared that he simply “moved money from one pocket to the other” while being “likely never to pay any taxes on it”. (Rhodes and Bloom 2018. See also: McGoey. 2015, Chan, Angela. 2015, Goldberg, Michael S. 2018)
In business relationships, although it may by chance occur, we don’t intend to exchange things of equal value. These necessarily greater benefits intended from the exchanges ultimately depend on how participants differentially value the things that they give and take. In most voluntary exchanges, these values are assumed to be at the least equivalent. But, we must note that such equal exchanges — resulting in no profit — would hardly be referred to as “doing business.” Prized business skills are those that help to create and maintain favorably unequal exchangs relationship. As noted by anthropologists, this is true even of barter in the understanding of the differential, social and/or economic, evaluations of what is equally exchanged.
Communication, Information, Consumption, and Consumers
This importance of exchange valuations, in turn, leads us to consider the role of valid and reliable information (TRUTH) in valuations; whether in business activity or not. How do we obtain knowledge upon which we base our actions in all social, political, and economic exchange relations? Why, for example, do we believe (TRUST THAT) some things are more valuable than others? In this regard efficiency/efficacy in communication is central to success, while deception in business seems to be normative for both the deceiver and deceived. Here we should consider one of the tenets of Symbolic Interactionism (SI). One SI pioneer, W.I. Thomas, is often quoted as arguing that “If people define things as real, then they are real in their consequences.” And, as I would paraphrase it, “If people believe things to be true, then they are true in their consequences.” This formulation helps me to understand the value of Jean Baudrillard’s societal condition of “hyperreality” in which we cannot distinguish realities from their simulations. (1998) It seems to me that, despite marvelous advances in communication technology, since 500 BCE, we are still prisoners in Plato’s Cave. (Plato) The digital/virtual revolution has provided nothing more than an advanced technological version of watching shadows created by puppeteers on a wall that we believe are our realities.
A Few Examples of Widely Accepted Untruthful Truths
Here I must relate some troubling experiences I have had in the course of learning and teaching “truths” for more than a half-century.
In 1964, when I was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army, I travelled to Amsterdam with my wife and while there I visited the Anne Frank House. As a teenager, I had read the Anne Frank: The Diary of Young Girl Story and having had many Jewish friends as a child, I was drawn to the house to see the spaces that were vividly described in the book. At the house, there was a display of newspapers, one of which had a headline “Die Juden sind unser Unglueck!” (The Jews are our Misfortune!)
Decades later, while teaching an Introduction to Sociology class at Brooklyn College during the AIDS Epidemic, a young African American male student raised his hand, and when called upon unabashedly asked “Isn’t it true Professor Krase that, in Africa, the Jews created AIDS to kill Africans?’
Not long after that, while teaching American Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, during an informal discussion after class a female student asked “Why do the Jews hate us?”
As an activist scholar, the role of media in all sorts of bigotry are frequent subjects of my work. In “Seeing Inclusion and the Right to the City” (2015), for example I included an image of “The Eternal Jew” along with equally hateful images of Muslims The Eternal Jew (1940) or Der ewige Jude. Der ewige Jude is a “classic” documentary style propaganda film that served to expound the menace of European Jewry. Jews are visually depicted as filthy, evil, and corrupt. Selective scenes of Jewish life and clips from Jewish cinema serve to visually “explain” the Jewish problem and the film ends with Adolf Hitler declaring that, if there is war, the Jewish race will be annihilated. In our conversion here we should also contemplate how we can have Antisemitism even without Jews. (Darnton 1981, Yegar 2006) As to another example of the role of visual media in Antisemitism was an exquisite Renaissance Blood Libel painting I saw in a Trento, Italy museum of a Jewish ritual killing of a gentile baby for Passover.
Whether documentary or fictional, the cinematic portrayal of despised minorities has much in common as to media technique. Marlon Riggs’ documentary Ethnic Notions (1986) shows how powerful stereotypes have fed anti-black attitudes throughout American history. The images she presented of loyal Uncle Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies in cartoons, feature films, popular songs, minstrel shows, advertisements, folklore, household artifacts, and children’s rhymes show how racial images have evolved. These caricatures were popular from the 1820s through the Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968) and, although somewhat muted, continue today. (See also: Wacquant 1993 and Peck 2021). If such powerful stereotypes and beliefs are so easily converted into consumable simulacra, how much more easily are other “facts.” These are questions I have long pondered, beginning with my 1973 dissertation “The Presentation of Community in Urban Society.” (Krase 1973)
As noted by Alan N. Shapiro in our on-line conversation about “The Ideal Consumer and Business Design Elements” there were great liberating hopes for the personal computer and the Internet “Utopian ideas about the Internet, information and knowledge free of charge for everyone – be a real platform for democracy and decentralization. On the other hand, there was a real deification of private enterprise, which showed the right wing of libertarianism in Silicon Valley: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, today it is Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos.” (https://un-sci.com/ru/2021/05/18/idealnyj-potrebitel-i-elementy-biznes-konstrukczii/) Obviously, this potentially progressive project failed in the same way as did the vainglorious predictions for Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Guglielmo’s radio, Philo Taylor Farnsworth II’s television, and jokingly – Al Gore’s Internet. (Kessler 2013) I also wonder whether archeologists will eventually discover similar hopes for cuneiform and hieroglyphic media. Here I also must note the use by major religions of the visual arts in their proselytizing missions.
Why do people believe in lies, like the Blood Libel? Trusted media sources of truth have evolved, and have followed the same form as Weber’s typology of authority ranging from authority, whose legitimacy derived from traditional rationality to that which is derived from legal-rationality. The third, a-rational, type is based on charisma which can be routinized. From which authority have so many Americans today become devoted to the untruths outlined by Kurt Anderson, roughly based on survey research from the past 20 years?:
By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks. (2017)
In the current Western media climate dominated by Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, WhatsApp, and China’s WeChat and TikTok, it would be extremely difficult to distinguish the source of the legitimacy of priests, rabbis, imams, shamans, gurus, prophets, cat videoers, royalty, rock stars, influencers, philosophers, scientists, bloggers, and podcasters who populate their cosmic universe. These “leaders of one sort or another,” seem to guide the varied (mis)informed choices of “followers” of the same sort or another. Note: these choices also include political ones such as in voting in allegedly “free elections” in which the distance, for example, between crass political ambition and even motherhood has been eliminated; as I was reminded by a political spam greeting I received from Jill Biden on Mother’s Day that was delivered to my Brooklyn College email account.
To: Dr. Jill Biden | re: “Happy Mother’s Day!”
Sign Now: (via TurnoutPAC) [email@example.com] Sent:Sunday, May 09, 2021 9:35 AM
To: Jerome Krase
CAUTION: This email is from outside BC, so examine it closely before opening attachments or clicking on links
The Progressive Turnout Project is proudly dedicated to doing what we do best — connecting with voters one on one to increase Democratic voter turnout. If you’d like to receive fewer emails or unsubscribe, click here >>We are so excited!! This weekend is Mother’s Day and we can’t wait to celebrate our First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden! Will you be the first person from New York to sign our Mother’s Day card for her??
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It should be also noted that, increasingly, women are the broadcasters of televised news because they are culturally more “trustworthy”; and the younger and more attractive the better because they are visually less threatening. In this regard, more mature female newscasters have complained about losing their positions to newer model purveyors of more and less accurate and more and less truthful information.
Another important question to consider as to consumption, is from where do we get information, how does it get to us, and most importantly why do we get it? To adequately address this, allow me to propose my “Empty Vessel” thesis to which technology is merely a delivery vehicle. My simple learning theory is that you cannot “learn” anything unless you have questions that need answers. Otherwise, even well-targeted messages will either bounce off, ricochet, or totally miss their targeted minds.
Since we are empty vessels when we are born, (tabula rasa, sounds more scholarly) it is imperative to consider how we are subsequently filled, emptied and refilled. Also, why are the most outrageous statements so commonly taken as truth or facts. In this regard, Manuel Castells noted that because power is information, societal “Spaces of Places” have been superseded by networks of information or “Spaces of Flows, which he felt had liberating potential. (1996) As we have seen however, these spaces have also been essentially appropriated by the usual suspects. Advanced digital technology has made it easier to produce false reality, fake news, alternative facts, and the perfect consumer. These simulation technologies also makes it possible to commodify “virtually” everything. Social, and non-social media like Facebook and virtual emporia like Amazon, produce followers (buyers) as well as influencers (sellers). Users, knowingly or not, share their personal data which are used to produce algorithms to which selective information flows. A major function of the mass media is the sale of advertising and the consumers themselves; simulated as algorithms. This process creates perfect consumers, who are themselves consumable. If fact, algorithms make it possible for us to consume each other and ourselves (auto-cannibalism). As opposed to George Orwell’s 1984, (1961) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (2012), because people have learned to share their personal data, we have moved toward an oppressive voluntary, as opposed to involuntary, surveillance society.
Speaking of freedom, for Juergen Habermas, social structures are free from constraint only when for all participants there is a symmetrical distribution of chances to select and employ speech acts, and an effective equality of chances to assume dialogue roles. In other words, the conditions of ideal speech situation must insure unlimited discussion which is free from all constraints of domination, whether their source is conscious strategic behavior or communication barriers secured in ideology and neurosis. “Truth,” therefore, cannot be analyzed independently of “freedom” and “justice.” (Habermas, 1975: xvii) Since we base our decisions on the information we have learned, even the freedom of free choices is problematic.
Not to be paranoid, but we must admit that powerful elites both create and control risk in contemporary society. Another way in which consumers are kept on edge is the constant cacophony of “Breaking News” on every communication channel. A favorite Breaking News personality is Britney Spears (https://www.independent.co.uk/topic/britney-spears) who resides in the same Pantheon as other World Leaders.
Much of this information can be considered as propaganda. I was tutored about its fine art by a distinguished colleague, Alfred Mcclung Lee who gave me a proof copy of his The Fine Art of Propaganda, co-authored by his wife Elizabeth Brian Lee. The book originally published in 1939, is a close analysis of the complex populist New Deal rhetoric of Charles E. Coughlin who was at the same time a fascist, anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest. As to the power of his messaging in a period of great risk and uncertainty, “Father Coughlin” was one of the most influential personalities on American radio. At the height of his popularity in the early 1930s, he had about 30 million listeners. In the book, he outlined five interrelated approaches to propaganda analysis: societal, social-psychological, communicatory, psychological, and technical. Each lends itself different propaganda techniques. The Lees saw propaganda as not limited to ideology but as part any individual’s or a group’s drive to advance what it regards as its own interests. In essence, propaganda is advertising which has a similar array of techniques. (https://www.emmgroup.net/insights/the-five-principles-of-great-advertising) It should also be noted, that as for America, the fine arts of advertising infiltrated American propaganda during World War I. (Albig 1958)
Since, as you cannot learn anything until you have questions, doubt or uncertainty is required, so we should consider the insights of Tomatsu Shibutani in his study of rumor. (1966 See also Fishman 1980) Shibutani studied the development of rumors in 60 case studies of historically ambiguous events. He found that they were not, as many would think, irrational, pathological social traits, but the result the search for meaningful interpretations, especially in stressful situations. In the 1980s, Ulrich Beck offered another way of thinking about ambiguity and stress in contemporary society. He thought we were at the cusp of a transition between “industrial society” and “risk society.” Risk Society is “an inescapable structural condition of advanced industrialization” and “Modern society has become a risk society in the sense that it is increasingly occupied with debating, preventing and managing risks that it itself has produced.” Like Castell’s misplaced optimism in spaces of flows, Beck saw in this new problem an opportunity for freedom from structural constraints and an opportunity for new forms of solidarity like the as of yet unfulfilled promise of Emile Durkheim’s “Organic Solidarity.” (1997)
Inconclusion (not a misprint but a suggestion for an endless endeavor)
In 2003 I reviewed and important book on uncertainty. (Krase 2003) In Vivere l’incertezza, Mariella Nocenzi analyzed the evolution of ‘risk society’ through which human beings have slowly crawled, and occasionally leaped, from living in a world where threats to their existence were beyond not only their knowledge but also beyond their competence to deal with toward a world in which the most enlightened and powerful individuals have learned to fear their own actions as well as their inaction. This is a world in which the dichotomy of decision makers and those others who are affected by their decisions begins to lose its relevance. It the book demonstrated her mastery of a wide spectrum of sociological literatures drawing out from each theorist from Auguste Comte to Pierpaolo Donati relevant ideas that help us to understand the ways that risk, uncertainty, and societal evolution are inexorably intertwined. Especially important to the structure of her argument were the threads that woven through the contributions of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Robert K. Merton, Ulrich Beck, Niklas Luhmann, Anthony Giddens, and Jürgen Habermas.
Because we increasingly live in societies dominated by mass communication as a force independent of its content, Nocenzi expended considerable effort showing how risk is conveyed to the masses via the media through the prisms of influentials in various fields. Special notice was taken of how public trust in the source of information is undermined when ‘scientific’ experts disagree with each other, for example, about the risk to people of eating genetically modified food products. As today in America, the ever-wary Italian public then already had come to mistrust economic, political and mass media institutions; therefore, uncertainty generated even more risk and added to the growth of a culture where risk comes to be expected as an aspect of everyday life.
I hope the reader has found this occasionally rambling discussion of the social and economic origins of “business” and Jean Baudrillard’s concern for the (mis)placement of people in Consumer Society. Although I have tried, given the constraints of the publication, but more my own limitations, to assemble a reasonable coherent argument as to why and how we consumers, as empty vessels, are filled, emptied, and filled again. I think, in the end, we may always be at the mercy of the newest iteration of Plato’s, or Robert A. Heinlein’s, Puppet Masters. (1994) In a way, only mistrust can save us being consumed alive.
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