Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Our days are defined by thousands of compromises. Moments when we act in violation of our ethics for the sake of convenience: we drive alone instead of taking public transit, we order books from Amazon instead of supporting a local shop, we buy genetically modified crops harvested by mistreated workers, and so forth. The challenge as we prepare to go to sleep each night is to determine whether the number of compromises we have made has actually compromised us as people – for we will have to wake up and do it all again the next day.
People’s qualms with this condition break through, as the frustration of this daily internal humiliation forces the occasional outburst. At moments such as these it is easy to find specific targets in which to invest mythical levels of power so that they can be tarred as the source of our problems (even as some of these targets are worthy of the scorn directed at them). The company Monsanto (they of the genetically modified crop) is an excellent example of this, and as the recent “March Against Monsanto” indicates, people are anxious to cast this company (and its ilk) as one compromise too many. Or, to break it from a single company, take the right-wing billionaire Koch Brothers, who seem to be almost caricatures of “right wing billionaires” with their corporate empire befouling all its shadow rests upon.
Much of the contemporary frustration stems from the inability to fully recognize the compromises for what they are. The web of capitalist ownership is quite confusing, and as many of the compromises we make are born from exhaustion, it is all too easy to want to “just grab a roll of paper towel from the store and go home.” Regardless of whether or not that purchase just helped fill the coffers of a group we may find despicable. After all, how can you try to make ethical consumption decisions, when your time is too consumed for you to distinguish the “good products” from the “bad products.” This tension seems to have a certain resonance with philosopher Max Horkheimer’s comment that:
“Freedom is not the freedom to accumulate, but the fact that I have no need to accumulate.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 23)
Switch out “accumulate” for “consume” and there you have it. Yet to be broken free from the constant exhortation “thou must consume!” seems ever more unlikely, and thus the above quote is shifted by modern society into a stance wherein “freedom” just becomes the “freedom to accumulate” with slightly better information. Nothing is going to change our “need to accumulate,” so at least we can accumulate with a clear(ish) conscience. Right? Right. Enter: Buycott.
“lets you organize your consumer spending to help causes that you care for, and to oppose those that you don’t.”
You download the App to an appropriate device, and then the next time you go shopping you aim your phone’s camera at an item’s barcode, the App scans it, and then the App provides you with information about the various corporations involved in this product. In other words, scan an item, and a few moments later you will be told where this item rests on your compromise scale. Will your buying this roll of paper towel benefit the Koch brothers? If so, put it back, and keep scanning until you find a more upstanding brand of paper towels.
To be frank, Buycott is an interesting idea for an App, and a neat example of a way that an App can be used to enable people to make more informed decisions about what they’re buying. Though, it should be noted, this certainly goes in both directions. Even as some may use the App to avoid products that will profit the Kochs, there are others who might happily use the App to guide them to products that will profit the Kochs (though the App does seem to have a slightly more lefty bent to it). What Buycott provides is a way to lessen the compromises that are demanded by every day life, it allows for a partial erasing of some of the moral floundering that results from consumption that is out of step with our moral values.
What Buycott offers consumers is a chance to participate in “consumerism +” which is just like regular “consumerism,” except afterwards you get to feel good about what you just bought. Participation in this faux “ethical” consumerism has been critiqued by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek (in his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce) as a situation in which:
“we are not merely buying and consuming, we are simultaneously doing something meaningful, showing our capacity for care and our global awareness, participating in a collective project,” (Žižek, 54)
Our ethical commitment, our obligation (more on the idea of “ethical obligations”) are what may motivate us to download the Buycott App and it may be what compels us to use it…but ultimately…we’re still just shopping. What Buycott provides is a cleaner and less conflicted consumption, one in which we can merrily go on consuming safe in our feeling that we aren’t supporting terrible companies, while simultaneously doing precious little to actually change the system. By “voting with our dollars” we subtly acknowledge that the dollars are what really vote, and we therefore further empower the very corporate system that gives rise to Monsanto or the Koch Brothers or [insert the name of a company you dislike]. In the guise of making a ethical decision Buycott robs our ethical decision of weight and turns them into just another shopping preference. All moral stances are funneled towards consumption, as we move from “I do this because it is right” to “I buy this because it is less wrong.”
All of which, is to say nothing of the more obvious problems. After all, using your Buycott app to avoid tax dodging or just dodgy companies on a smartphone made by Apple (more on that) or Google (more on that [even more on that]) seems rather odd. Likewise using Buycott to carefully select products at the anti-union WholeFoods, packs all of the ethical weight into what you bought while ignoring where you bought it or where the device you used comes from. It is a joke we participate in or, as Theodor Adorno wrote in The Schema of Mass Culture (which is in the collection The Culture Industry):
“the information communicated by mass culture constantly winks at us.” (Adorno, 83)
Insofar as we find that we must make many of these compromises, an App like Buycott, can be a useful tool in helping us make slightly better choices in what we buy (even as it winks at us). Yet woe be upon us, and upon the ethics that we hold, if we think for a moment that by purchasing a “less bad” product that we have somehow done enough. Attempting to make meaningful moral and ethical decisions is difficult, and in modern society it can be hard to try to live in accordance with such commitments, and while this challenge can be frustrating, we should remain wary of anything that seems like too easy a solution. Especially when this easy solution comes to us courtesy of technological devices that, themselves, warrant a more critical eye (again, more on that).
What Buycott, and similar “consumerism +”, services and items offer is a sort of false freedom in which our moral commitments are easily transformed into simple individually driven moments of picking products. As opposed to the messy work of challenging the larger systems that give rise to those products, and to the companies that make the phones on which we can then install Apps like Buycott. Such things do not offer us more freedom but a way to subsume our freedom back into the activity of consumption. We’re still accumulating, but with our morals suitably massaged, we can now accumulate guilt free.
We need make only the slightest change in our lives, we only need scan the barcode and make sure that we’re supporting marginally better corporations. What matters is that nothing truly interferes with our ability to acquire the things that we actually need (such as food) and those that we think we need (such as new gadgets). This “consumerism +” just ensures that our pesky conscience doesn’t get in the way of any purchasing pursuit. Thus Buycott, despite it’s feisty guise, can act as a way to catch those angry with the state of affairs and riled up by the dehumanizing aspects of mass culture and then harmlessly reintegrate them into the system of consumption. Thereby:
“mass culture allows precisely this reserve army of outsiders to participate: mass culture is an organized mania for connecting everything with everything else, a totality of public secrets. The satisfaction of curiosity by no means serves only the psychological economy of the subject, but directly serves material interests as well. Those who have been thoroughly informed lend themselves to thorough utilization.” (Adorno, 83)
Our daily lives are made up of hundreds (if not thousands) of minute compromises, but we should be aware that in relying on an easy technological solution we are in fact trading one compromise for another one – for we are allowing a program (one that uses corporate tools) to stand in for our ethical agency. From lacking information we move to a system where we are inundated with our society’s “public secrets,” which in the end allows us to lend ourselves back to the market.
Informing oneself can be an important step in leading to the recognition of ethical demands, as recognizing uncomfortable pieces of information can be the impetus for action. Yet, we must be wary that the tools for such recognition do not just feed us back into the system that gives rise to the problems in the first place.
Information provided through a smartphone App gives ethical information with a wink. Provoking us to perform a momentary ethical blink, when the proper response is to glare back angrily.
Ethical consumption is still consumption. And there is no App that is a substitute for sustained moral outrage.
Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge, 2001.
Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer, Max. Towards a New Manifesto. Verso Books, 2011.
Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Verso Books, 2009.
Hessel, Stéphane. Time for Outrage (Indignez-vous!)